Collaboration Teaching

Learning about the Events of September 11, 2001, Through Story

This blog is written by Lesley Roessing suggesting that a variety of texts can be used to teach historical events still impacting the world today. Read more about Lesley at the bottom of her post.

No historical event may be as unique and complicated to discuss and teach as the events of September 11, 2001, the day terrorists crashed planes into, and destroyed, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. At the time of this event, no child in our present K-12 educational system was yet born, but, in most cases, their parents and educators would have been old enough to have some knowledge of, and even personal experience with, these events, making this a very difficult historic event for many to teach. However, with the devastation and impact of these events on our past, present, and future and as ingrained a part of history these events are, they need to be discussed and understood as much as possible.
An effective way to learn about these events is through story. Powerful novels have been written about this tragedy, for all age levels and, fascinatingly, each presents a different perspective of the events. Some take place during September 11, some following the events, some a few years later or many years later, and a few include two timelines. Many take place from the perspectives of multiple characters.
On September 11, 2021, YA Wednesday posted my guest-blog “Novels, Memoirs, Graphics, and Picture Books to Commemorate September 11th.”  In this blog, I interviewed authors and reviewed and recommended 24 texts and six picture books.
  Since then, I have read two additional texts:

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi
“Suspicion of those unlike us is common human behavior. We don’t trust who we don’t know. But yes, 9/11 was terrible, and it really fueled the fire of hatred in this country.” (184-5)

Sixth grader Yusuf Azeem was born in Texas and is an American; his mother was also born in America and his father was a Pakistani immigrant who runs the popular A to Z Dollar Store in town (and a somewhat a local hero after capturing an intruder threatening his store and customers). The family is Muslim, but, understandably, Yusuf is shocked when sixth grade begins with threatening notes in his locker. When one says, “Go home,” he is hurt and confused. Frey, Texas is his home. Surely the notes are meant for someone else.

This is a novel that may benefit from some background on the events of September 11, 2001, since the action takes places in 2021 but, read individually, Ausuf’s uncle’s journal helps to fill in information. The importance of this particular novel is that it demonstrates that, for some of our citizens and students, “Twenty years. So much time. But things haven’t really changed at all.” (48) One of the major events in the story—when a little computer in his backpack beeped and, instead of questioning him and investigating, Ausuf is thrown in jail for twelve hours—is based on a real event from 2015 where Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim 14-year-old, was arrested at his high school because of a disassembled digital clock he brought to school to show his teachers [].

It is vital that our children learn about 9/11 because, as Yusuf’s mamoo says, “History informs our present and affects our future.” (81)

In the Shadows of the Fallen Towers by Don Brown
Don Brown’s graphic novel recounts events following the 9/11 attacks on the Towers and the Pentagon from the moment of the “jetliner slamming into the North Tower of the World Trade Center” to the one-year anniversary ceremonies at the Pentagon, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at Ground Zero. It also covers the fighting of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the capture and interrogation of prisoners from an al-Qaeda hideout in Pakistan.
The drawings allow readers to bear witness to the heroism of the first responders, firefighters, and police as they move from rescue to recovery over the ten months following the attacks and learn the stories of some of the survivors they saved. It is the story of the nameless “strangers [who] help[ed] one another, carrying the injured, offering water to the thirsty, and comforting the weeping.” (23)
We learn and view details that we may have not known, such as “Bullets start to fly when the flames and heat set off ammunition from fallen police officers’ firearms,” (11) the “Pentagon workers [who] plunge[d] into the smoke-filled building to restore water pressure made feeble by pipes broken in the attack,” (36) and former military who donned their old uniforms and “bluff[ed their way] past the roadblocks” to “sneak onto the Pile” to help. (50, 52)
For more mature readers this book adds to the story of 9/11 in a more “graphic” way.
I have taught a unit on NINE ELEVEN through book clubs in multiple schools from grades 5 through 9 in both ELA and Social Studies classes. Children and adolescents have felt comfortable these sensitive and challenging concepts and examining these troubling events and some of the ensuing difficulties, prejudices, and bullying, through the eyes of characters who are around their ages, some readers sharing personal stories in their small collaborative groups. I am thankful for the authors who have allowed our children to experience these events in a safe and compassionate way. I have presented these novels and strategies and lessons for reading through book clubs at local workshops and national conferences. I included my 9/11 Book Club unit as a chapter in TALKING TEXTS: A Teacher’s Guide To Book Clubs Across The Curriculum.

Condensed and reproduced with permission from posted on September 2, 2023.

Lesley Roessing was a public-school teacher in eastern Pennsylvania for 20 years where she taught high school and middle school ELA, Humanities, and Gifted Studies. In 2010, she founded and directed the Coastal Savannah Writing Project at Georgia Southern University where she also taught pre-service and in-service teachers. The year prior to her retirement, she served as the Literacy Consultant (Coach) for a K-8 charter school. Upon retirement, she continued writing, visiting classrooms to facilitate reading and writing lessons, and posting all things literacy! 

Follow her website, created to support educators—teachers, librarians, and parents, at


“Which Truck is the Best Choice?” A story of Authentic Motivation to do an Inquiry Project

By: Priscila J.B.M. Costa and Felipe Costa

The Ignition

It was September, a couple of months into the outbreak of COVID-19, and school buildings were closed for in-person learning. My son was beginning his 5th grade year and working on schoolwork virtually through daily Google Meets and several other learning platforms. We also decided to give him a smartphone to help develop better digital literacy skills. One day, while I was driving and running errands, he blurted from the backseat, “Mom, I don’t understand! This website says the Ford F-450 is the best, but at the end, it says that GMC 3500HD is better than the Ford. It doesn’t make any sense.” 

As an educator and language teacher, I saw a teaching opportunity. His elementary school was a school of choice created as a national demonstration site for inquiry-based instruction. Souto-Manning et al. (2010) describe well the vision of the school and how teachers approach self-motivated inquiry. Felipe attended this particular school for two years and already learned how to take agency over his own inquiry projects. His interest in the topic of trucks was a motivating factor to use his inquiry skills on a real-life problem. It was also an opportunity to build a new digital literacy skill. 

I said, “I can’t read what is on the website because I am driving now, but you can tell me more about what you are reading.”

“I’m searching which truck is the best, but in this website sometimes they say one thing, and then they say the opposite. Why don’t they make up their minds?” he asked. 

“I agree. That does not make sense. Is it the same person writing the whole article, or are there several people sharing their opinions about various trucks?”

He described what he saw on the screen of his phone, “I think there is a question at the top, and people write their answers. One person wrote the Ford F-450 is better because it has more torque. It is a stronger work truck. Then, I continued reading, and there is this other person who said that the GMC 3500HD is better because it has more internal space and it is more comfortable.”

The Road to Learning

Photo by Benjamin Zhao on Unsplash

He was engaged in reading and motivated to find an answer. I pictured a Quora style forum. Reading that kind of multimodal genre requires specific literacy skills. The New London Group (1996) proposed the concept of multiliteracies, which expands the conventional definition of literacy to encompass reading texts in many other modalities beyond print. It includes new media such as all the digital resources offered by mobile devices and the Internet (Kalantzis & Cope, n.d., 2015). Jones and Hafner (2012) explain that “digital literacies involve not just being able to ‘operate’ tools like computers and mobile phones, but also the ability to adapt the affordances and constraints of these tools to particular circumstances” (p. 13). 

In this circumstance, I replied to him, “That sounds like a discussion forum. It is a website where anyone can ask questions about any topic, and people who know about that topic can join and give their answers. Some answers are better than others. Some are based on facts, like scientific research, and others are just their opinions based on experience. Are those answers about the trucks based on truck facts?”

“Well, there are some facts. Like, the first one says that the Ford F-450 has 1050 lb-ft of torque. That is a fact. The other says that the GMC 3500HD has a softer suspension and it rides smoother, and that is also a fact,” he answered.

I continued asking, “Look at those facts. I don’t know much about trucks, but it sounds like they are not about the same features. I believe they are comparing apples to oranges. Why is that?”  

Parking for a Lesson

He explained, “I think it depends on their opinion on what makes a good truck. Some people want a heavy-duty truck to use for work or to pull a big trailer. Other people prefer comfort and space when they use the truck to travel. So, at the end, when you read these answers, you can make your own decision depending on what you prefer for a truck.”

“And what is your conclusion?” I finally asked. 

He concluded, “For me, the Ford F-450 is better because I want to have more power than comfort.” 

Great! He built a literacy skill then and there. In this micro inquiry, he was able to make a critical analysis of the data he collected from the online forum. His engagement with the topic gave him motivation to read critically from a digital source and address his question. All those skills can be transferred to his academic work now that he is in middle school, because they help him read in search of information.   


Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding digital literacies: A Practical introduction. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (n.d.). Kalantzis and Cope on New Media Literacies: Technology’s Impacts on Communication [Com]. New Learning Online. Retrieved October 27, 2021, from

Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2015). Learning and New Media. In D. Scott & E. Hargreaves (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Learning (pp. 373–387). SAGE.

New London Group. (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60–92.

Souto-Manning, M., Mills, H., & O’Keefe, T. (2010). Teacher as Researcher: Collaborative Inquiry: From Kidwatching to Responsive Teaching. Childhood Education, 86(3), 169–171.

About the Authors

Priscila J.B.M. Costa is an international doctoral student in Language and Literacy, a Holmes Scholar Alumna, and an adjunct instructor in the First Year English program at the University of South Carolina. 

Felipe Costa is a bilingual 6th-grader and a truck expert.


Collaboration Through Student-Centered PLCs

By: Shanna Towery, South Carolina ELA Teacher

Greeting a classroom full of students and then closing out the rest of the school world with a firmly shut door seems to be the norm for many classroom teachers today. The autonomy afforded to teachers has its benefits, but it can also be detrimental to the mental health of teachers as well as the overall culture of a school.  

What’s Wrong with Collaboration?

It would be hard to pinpoint exactly what is to blame for the general ill-will often felt by educators towards collaboration or the dreaded PLC. Maybe it’s the sense of competition garnered from high-stakes testing or the half-hearted attempts at professional development where many teachers are sure to be found half-listening with a stack of ungraded papers.  Whatever the cause, the real casualties when collaboration is not fostered, encouraged, and celebrated are the ones who need it the most–our students.  

Collaboration:  For the Students or For the Students?

Most teachers would agree that students are social creatures.  As such, we can utilize their tendencies for communication through class discussion, turn-and-talk strategies, or collaborative groups as effective teaching tools.  In this sense, educators are encouraged to use collaboration among students to foster learning in the classroom, but are teachers as willing to collaborate together to ensure every student truly learns?  How often do teachers meet in your building to use real classroom data to authentically discuss student progress, successes, needs, for enrichment?  

A tree, in a forest, with a question mark painted on it.
Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

For too many schools, the answer to these inquiries would be disappointing to advocates for professional collaboration. Why is it that collaboration among students in the classroom is a non-negotiable, while the adults in the building do their best to cling to their autonomy?  When did we outgrow communication as a means to deepen and build mutual understanding? How can we be so willing to participate in discussion forums, Facebook groups, book clubs, or Bible studies, but hesitate to collaborate with the colleagues in our buildings?  And most importantly, what can we do to turn this around?

PLC:  More Than Meets the Eye

Photo by Oliver Buchmann on Unsplash

Professional Learning Communities have gotten a bad rep thanks to half-hearted attempts done simply to check a proverbial box.  In reality, PLCs have so much more potential and value when utilized correctly.  While book studies and grade level/department level meetings are important and definitely have their place in a positive school climate, the kind of PLCs I have found success with are more about student achievement than they are teacher-centered.  In this type of PLC, teachers would meet together prior to teaching to discuss learning goals and objectives. The teachers would not discuss activities or lesson plans so much as they would discuss what they truly wanted their students to gain from upcoming lessons.  Only when the goals have been identified would teachers discuss how best to teach for the goals as well as how they would know whether or not the goals had been met (think: assessments).  After teaching, the teachers would gather the data from the classroom assessments and meet again to compare notes and discuss patterns, ahas, or concerns.  A step often missed here is what to do next–will re-teaching be necessary? Is there room for enrichment?  And with true Professional Learning Communities, the cycle would then begin again!  

Literacy coaches will recognize what I have described as student-centered coaching cycles (Sweeney, 2011), but as evidenced by a professional development session I was privileged to attend with select members of my district through Solution Tree, this type of PLC has various formats and can take place with or without a literacy coach.  Ideally, proper school leadership would encourage this type of student-centered learning approach throughout the building, but all it takes is a few teachers willing to work through a few cycles for it to catch on. As a 6th grade ELA teacher, I was able to conduct a few cycles with a 7th grade social studies teacher last spring before school ended abruptly to offer some insight to her regarding disciplinary literacy.  We put our individual expertise together to determine goals for “reading” primary documents and then analyzed data together to inform her teaching.  I was able to help her create a rubric for assessment based on our goals and it became very clear through this process what students were understanding and what needed to be re-taught or further scaffolded. It was such a refreshing and rewarding experience to feel that we were collaborating in a way that would truly be useful to both teaching and student learning!  Afterwards, I was able to carry the type of work we had done into my grade level ELA planning meetings.  

A Call to Action

After years of thinking I knew all there was to know about PLCs and professional development, I found this reimagining of the student-centered PLC to be just the kind of collaboration I could get behind. My hope is that others will see how incredibly beneficial collaboration can be when professionals are willing to meet together on behalf of their students in a non-judgemental or threatening way.  Our students deserve it!  

Sweeney, D. (2011). Students-centered coaching: A guide for K-8 coaches and principals. Corwin

About the Author

Shanna Towery has sixteen years teaching experience across a total of four school districts in South Carolina.  She is a recent M.Ed. graduate from Clemson University and is currently a 6th grade ELA teacher.  


Student Collaboration in the Virtual Classroom

By: Victoria Young, a South Carolina Teacher

When I began teaching virtually this school year, I was excited to utilize all of the technological resources and techniques I learned in university that I hadn’t had the chance to try out. However, as most teachers know, it is almost impossible to effectively teach content in a meaningful way to kids when they are unable to connect with the content and one another. In the virtual classroom, students are unable to simply turn to their neighbor and discuss a problem or quickly whisper questions and comments to one another in class. Sure, no teacher will deny the fact that the mute button is a game changer for classroom management, but they will agree that it does damage the classroom community. The social barrier created by virtual learning seemed to put the important skill of collaboration on hold for this generation of students. So how do we as teachers reignite this connectivity in the virtual classroom?

Tip #1: Build confidence with anonymity

Photo by Philippe Bourhis on Unsplash
Photo by Philippe Bourhis on Unsplash

For me, it was a long process filled with patience. The first day of school is always awkward; but with technical difficulties and lack of participation, the first day shyness lasted the first two weeks. The way I approached a lack of classroom engagement was by treating virtual classes like a shy kid. You know the one – shoulders hunched, little eye contact, and always chooses to do the group assignment alone without asking. With tools such as Nearpod, Polleverywhere, and Google Forms, I did activities in and out of class that allowed students to express themselves and their thoughts and opinions with anonymity. As a class, we would see how we all think alike or learn new perspectives. I would ask for opinions on silly things like what I should eat for lunch for kids who are more outgoing to speak up without pressure of being ‘wrong’. When the more outgoing kids started to lead the way with the easy interactions, I saw that even the quieter students begin to speak up in the chat or even unmute! Eventually, through these distant interactions, I noticed more and more students interacting in class in day to day conversations and in content related discussions. They began to gain confidence once they saw that they are safe to share their ideas.

Tip #2: Use mainstream tools to your advantage

Once we broke the 10 layers of ice, I began to do more collaboration boards and Flipgrids without anonymity in order to encourage more discussion in class. In my very social classes, I have even gone on to do partner projects through remote learning. Middle and high school students are on every type of social media; so many of my students chatted via Snapchat, Instagram, and even Discord. Other students with less access to social media simply communicated via email. All that to say, students are collaborating all the time, we just have to use their methods to our advantage! (If you can’t beat them, join them!) I was never given any issues with participation despite how different this form of collaboration is and how it appears more arduous than simply sitting next to a partner in class. It is as if the ability to collaborate without a teacher facilitating every step was freeing; therefore, I began to see their personalities shine through their work.

Tip #3: Find common ground

Of course, not every class can achieve the same level of collaboration in the virtual world. That doesn’t mean, however, that it can’t be achieved! One of my classes’ favorite activities is to play Among Us as review before an assessment. While talking about our weekend plans, I told my students I was going to play video games with some friends. This built a quick connection between me and my classes. Eureka! We finally had something in common besides being stuck in quarantine. On, there is an activity that allows students to review material while playing in a similar format of the popular game Among Us. Students get very competitive and have to interrogate one another in order to win. There are also several other games that allow collaboration; but I always start with a solo game to help students get used to the mechanics. Nothing says virtual like video games and they are a great way to build community and collaborate in order to learn! 

No matter the grade level or content you teach, collaboration is achievable in your classroom whether you are in person or online (or both!) this school year. Remember that at the end of the day, the goal of collaboration is to build relationships and problem solving skills. If you notice that your student collaboration is lacking in the qualitative results you want in your content, try to treat it more as a social skill. If you nurture your classroom’s environment first with collaboration, the learning will come along with it. Find a common interest, talk to a child or teen about what they like to do in their free time, and use those things to your advantage! Take away the fear of failure and show that you are all just as human as each other and soon your students will see that learning can be found all around us, not just in a school or textbook. And isn’t that the most powerful lesson that we can teach?

About the Author

Victoria Young, B.A. Secondary Education/Social Studies, is a geography and world history teacher at Greenville Technical Charter High School in South Carolina.


Misery Loves Company or Better Together?

By: Charlene Aldrich, retired South Carolina Literacy Instructor

In education, there are times when it’s a little bit of both.  I like to believe that Better Together overcomes Misery so that Company discovers possibilities rather than ponders problems.  

Too often educators, unknowingly, develop a silo mindset in their quest to accomplish everything that needs to be done to meet everyone’s needs – the state, the district, the administrators, the students, the parents, and the support staff members.  It’s a gradual process and, unlike the business definition of a silo mindset, is a re-action rather than a pro-action. A silo mindset in business develops when co-workers refuse to work together as a team – hoarding resources and hiding ideas that benefit the whole.  Personal recognition trumps the greater good.  Fear of losing out overshadows building relationships.

Photo by Jari Hytönen on Unsplash

In education, however, silo mindsets develop in response to overwhelming workloads, little downtime, and too much paperwork!  It becomes easy to say, ‘I don’t have time to collaborate,’ and ‘I just want to get home.’  There’s not even time to contemplate the fact that ‘better together’ results in efficient and effective instruction as well as developing a support network. I’d like to suggest three ways to promote collaboration in a school:  grade level, content area, and schoolwide.

Intradisciplinary Collaboration

Intradisciplinary collaboration within a school is big picture collaboration; it involves planning curriculum that has continuity, scope, and sequence from an intro course to the AP offering.  Long-term planning such as this happens outside of the regular school year.  The biology team or the Algebra team or the Honors ELA team meets at least two times a year: one to look back and one to look forward.  Another model is a two-day retreat with the same idea – looking back and looking forward.  Priorities include sequenced content area text resources, scaffolded instruction from course to course, and intentional development of disciplinary literacy practices. Collaboration between teachers who teach the same courses should focus on dissecting the course standards into individual lessons to develop content area knowledge necessary to meet them.  

Grade Level Collaboration

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Grade level collaboration, on the other hand, is an ongoing effort among colleagues to develop ways to build relationships between the content of each other’s courses.  In an effort to provide real world connections and context for learning, teachers work together to plan content overlap that is mutually reinforcing.  Literature pairs well with history; mathematics pairs well with business and economics.  The arts curriculum overlaps with history as artists’ and musicians’ compositions reflect the culture in which they were created. Lyrics in music correlate to poetry in ELA. Sciences and math are mutually reinforcing; construction trades, culinary, and physical education include math calculations, conversions, and statistics.  And every content area has significant people whose lives are told through biographies and autobiographies which are just one of the many categories of literature taught by ELA teachers.  

Collaborating across a grade level doesn’t even have to be synchronous to be effective. Connected content introduced in one discipline becomes background knowledge in preparation for future content of another discipline; it also serves as a source for applying content knowledge to new learning situations. Long term retention is accomplished as connected content surfaces a variety of courses that review, connect, and extend content for deep understanding.

Synchronous School-wide Collaboration

Synchronous school-wide collaboration is possible several times a year in response to awkward calendar planning.  For example, the day of Halloween and the day after Halloween are sometimes void of learning because excitement replaces focus.  Thematic collaboration on these isolated days rescue students and teachers from wasted time and potential behavior management issues.  Two days of hype and sugar-highs are replaced with inquiry and fact-finding: history, cultural celebrations, economic impact, spending statistics, chemistry, nutrition, poetry, drama, short stories, music, art, and even physical education!  All it takes is a little creativity mixed with a lot of enthusiasm to connect content, include a course requirement, and engage students throughout the school around a common theme two or three times a year. I can personally recommend this NewsELA article as a place to begin: (It will ask you to make an account to read the article; the article as well as all of their ‘news’ articles are free.  Other content needs a subscription.  All of their free news articles make great themes for collaboration or connecting to specific lessons in your content area.)

What are the ‘down days’ at your school? There should never be a class day that a student can say, ‘It’s Halloween. The teachers never do anything important on Halloween. I can stay home.’  If you are reading this, then you may be the one who can make collaboration happen in your school!  Find the First Follower in YOUR school and do it! 

About the Author

After 20 years of growing literacy in under-prepared college students, Charlene retired to focus on state-wide literacy initiatives such as LiD, 6-12 and her R2S approved literacy courses at College of Charleston.  She lets her life speak by empowering teachers to have the confidence and competence to implement a literacy model of instruction in any content area and at every grade level. Her best Covid-19 memory is teaching her grandson Algebra 1 via phone calls, Zoom, text messaging, and FaceTime.  It was online instruction at its best – synchronously and interactively.


Literacy Coaching During A Pandemic

By: Meagan Wagner, South Carolina Middle/High School Teacher

Coloring pages.  That’s what it took, this week, to motivate my eighth grade boys’ book club to read their assigned pages in the novel. Donuts weren’t appealing and candy is lackluster after Halloween. Yes, I bribe students with goodies. Or, in educator-speak, I provide extrinsic motivation for my students. And if you thought coloring pages would be too elementary for teenagers, then you’d be wrong. I am their literacy coach – and they do not receive a grade from me, so creativity is required to engage and motivate. In fact, that last statement pretty much sums up what it is like to be a literacy coach during a pandemic.  

In a normal, non-COVID-19 school year, being a literacy coach means fulfilling many duties. Organizer of novel sets. Assessor of reading fluency and comprehension. Analyzer of standardized testing data. Listener to teacher meltdowns. Bulletin board decorator. Book pusher.  My daily role also consists of working within English language arts classrooms as a co-teacher of sorts, pulling struggling readers for reading strategy conferences, conducting walkthrough observations in classrooms, and designing/facilitating professional development opportunities for my faculty. This is not that sort of year.  

Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash

COVID-19 presented unique parameters within my rural school district. First, the last time we saw our students was six months prior to when they returned to buildings on a new alternating-day hybrid schedule. Second, we were quickly distributing devices to students for the first time ever, because our schools were adamantly NOT one-to-one with computers. Third, many families chose our district-provided virtual option. In an English language arts (ELA) class that would normally consist of twenty-eight students, and would benefit from my co-teaching assistance, we might have eight students on a strong attendance day; most days are not strong attendance days. Fourth, my colleagues are balancing the workload like never before: creating in-class lessons that are not allowed to include group work, providing additional work for the students’ at-home days, providing quarantine packets for students sent home, all while learning new technology.  

Making Collaborative Adjustments for COVID-19

I knew before walking into the building in August, that this was not the time to be a normal literacy coach. Co-teaching in a group of eight or less might not be the best use of my time. Conducting walkthroughs to identify instructional needs is NOT a good idea right now — this is not a normal instructional year. Professional development opportunities on incorporating literacy into the content areas is obviously not a priority. This does not mean that my role is not important or valuable for teachers during this time. Creativity is required to engage and motivate  teachers AND students.

Coaching Priority #1 – Determine the Best way to support the teachers.

In the same way that we differentiate for students, we should differentiate for teachers. My sixth grade teachers wanted help with grammar: so weekly lessons from me are a go. My seventh and eighth grade teachers wanted to be able to reserve times with me instead of having an assigned visit per week because, too often, my assigned time in their class was filled with helping students who came back from quarantine, or organizing a messy student’s binder.

Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

While these activities have their merit, it was not the best use of my time. Therefore, I created a Google Doc schedule and shared it with my department. This engaged and motivated my teachers to use me in new ways.  They have booked me for stations and review lessons, re-teaching small groups, book clubs, and read alouds. As a department, we saw a need to help students learn how to pick out books that are good choices for them.  A series of stations and book talks ensued. My high school teachers wanted help furthering independent reading interest for students they only see in person twice a week. I began booktalk videos and trailers that they could provide via technology.  

Coaching Priority #2 – Be the voice of encouragement

Teachers, not just in English language arts, were reporting burnout and lack of encouragement. I began walkthrough snapshots — as a means to celebrate the amazing adjustments seen in classrooms. I visit the room, take photos with permission, and leave a note for the teacher that lists all the positives I saw happening. Feedback suggested that teachers want to show off the ways they are adjusting — and rightly so. They are doing amazing things with technology, social distancing, and keeping themselves safe all the while. I have since seen my snapshot celebration forms hanging above teacher desks.  

Every stakeholder in education has made major changes to adjust to COVID-19.  Administrators, parents, students, teachers, coaches, secretaries, media specialists, custodians, and so many more.  The fact that we have managed to rise to the occasion is something to be celebrated and to unite us.  We are all in this together and we will do whatever it takes — even if that means printing coloring pages.

About the Author:  

Meagan Wagner, M.Ed., NBCT, is a literacy coach for middle and high school in South Carolina. She is also a doctoral candidate at the University of South Carolina, in Curriculum & Instruction.  


Safe Schools: More Than Locked Doors and Sanitizer

By: Dr. Jennifer Geddes Hall, Clemson University

Classrooms today are complex environments to navigate for teachers. There are standardized tests for almost every subject and grade level and teachers are expected to have every student, no matter the circumstances, pass these exams. They are expected to differentiate instruction based on the individual needs of each student all while being tasked with adhering to COVID health guidelines and participating in active shooter drills. Even more so today than in days of the past, teachers are responsible for addressing not only the academic needs of students but their social and emotional needs as well. Now that the racial unrest of our country, which has been around for decades, is more visible with violence against BIPOC and police brutality popping up on social media and news outlets, schools and teachers are charged with making their classrooms safe for all students.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Safety is not ensured by having a school resource officer, locked doors for visitors who wish to enter, temperature checks at the door, or sanitizing stations at every corner. Safety outside of this context must address the culture of the school and the emotional safety and well-being of students from various backgrounds. What do I mean by emotional safety? Emotional safety includes feeling a sense of belonging in the fabric of the school and its community. Feeling safe enough to be vulnerable and share struggles and victories without fear of consequences or backlash. Feelings of togetherness and not otherness. In short, safety is created through positive relationships and unconditional positive regard. 

Microagressions and Macrogressions

Micro/macroaggressions can jeopardize this sense of safety and quickly create a negative school culture and harmful experiences for BIPOC students of all ages. Let’s first explore microaggressions. Microaggressions are commonly defined as subtle, degradations and putdowns -intentional or unintentional- disguised as jokes and/or compliments that are manifestations of racism and privilege which cause negative/harmful effects on the recipient. Some examples related to racial microaggressions include: Where are you from? You speak so clearly and eloquently! You don’t act Black. I’m colorblind. What are you? Can I touch your hair?

Photo by Kate Kalvach on Unsplash

Although these may seem like “harmless” comments, they have great impact and BIPOC experience these types of interactions several times every day. Microaggressions such as these perpetuate the idea that BIPOC students are different, unusual, abnormal and can ultimately tear them down. Research has shown that the impacts of microaggressions can affect blood pressure, lower feelings of well-being and self-esteem, and increase stress, anger, frustration, anxiety, and depression. Outwardly it may appear that students are disengaged, verbally and physically aggressive towards peers and/or teachers, noncompliant, struggle academically, and/or drop out of school. Similarly, macroaggressions are obvious, larger scale or overt acts of aggression such as environmental macroaggressions and institutional/ideological macroaggressions (Compton-Lilly, 2020). Lack of BIPOC representation or items that convey racialized messages and areas within the school building or grounds that are racially insensitive such inadequate resources, inequitable policies/practices, and apathy in addressing impact of race or racial issues in the system are all examples of macroaggressions that may be occurring in our schools. These larger scale issues often lead to disproportionate levels of expulsion, suspension, and disciplinary actions against BIPOC students, increased negative attitudes and toxic school culture. 

Creating Safe Spaces for Black, Indigenous and People of Color

So how do teachers create safe spaces and help to positively impact change against micro/macroaggressions in their classrooms and schools? First off, teachers need to be open to examining and addressing their own implicit biases and areas of privilege. When we open our eyes to the messages about BIPOC that our society and environments have placed upon us, we can be more intentional about removing them from our way of being and interactions with students and others. We also need to be proactive in building relationships with all of our students and outwardly express our support for BIPOC. When we take time to connect, understand, and empathize rather than dismiss student experiences, we build relationships and trust. Research has demonstrated that when there is at least one caring, responsive, attuned person in a student’s life, it can impact the resilience and success of that student. Including representation of BIPOC and diversity in academic content and in classroom environments also conveys support. Representation is powerful.

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

When teachers hear others using or perpetuating microaggressions we need to intervene and stop them. This will demonstrate care and concern for our students, provide a model for others, and will help to decrease negative interactions that BIPOC students might experience during the school day. Instances of repeated or intentional microaggressions by students should be treated as bullying and addressed through the school’s bullying policy. Unfortunately, there are also instances of teachers and other adults in the schools who use microaggressions. These instances should also be addressed immediately and brought to the attention of administration for repercussions. Microaggressions of any kind are harmful but those initiated by adults in the school building have more impact due to differences in power, control, and privilege. 

A Collaborative Solution

Finally, to address micro and macroaggressions teachers should communicate and collaborate with their school counselors in an effort to develop positive change in the school culture. School counselors are uniquely trained to address the mental health and emotional needs of students as well as advocate and implement data-based interventions for systemic change. School counselors have a larger view of issues in the school, access to data which can support needed efforts, ability to collaborate across many domains, and a seat at the leadership table by working closely with administrators. They have relationships with students, parents, and with adults in the school and community. Together, teachers and school counselors can work to focus on changes that need to be made in the classroom, such as bias that may be influencing grading practices or classroom lessons or group counseling interventions that may be necessary to build student skills related to cultural empathy. School counselors may also need to partner with teachers in providing cultural competency training to adults in the school and presenting school data on cultural climate to the school board/administration in an effort to improve conditions and policies/practices to ensure equity. I ask you to think about and consider what you will do in your classroom to take these steps forward? What actions will you take to make sure your school is a safe space for all? Change is not a choice, it is imperative. 

For more resources on how to make classrooms more equitable and inclusive visit

About the Author

Dr. Jennifer Geddes Hall is an assistant clinical professor at Clemson University, teaching in the Counselor Education program and serving on the College of Education’s Community and Diversity committee and taskforce for Inclusive Excellence. She is a licensed professional counselor and certified school counselor with over 17 years of combined experience as a child/teen therapist and school counselor. Dr. Hall has worked in community and school settings in diverse, urban communities as well as rural areas. She has a focus on multicultural issues as well as developing cultural competency in her past publications as well as local, state, and national conference presentations. Dr. Hall currently serves on the board for the Association of Child and Adolescent Counseling (ACAC), a division of the American Counseling Association (ACA)


Data over Assumptions: Determining How Our Schools Engage in Family-School Partnerships

By: Dr. Jennifer D. Morrison

Photo by Dave Craige on Unsplash

In 2016, the University of South Carolina Language & Literacy faculty members decided to overhaul the Masters in Education degree requirements. The then current program was outdated and focused on very narrow conceptions of literacy, who owned it, and how it was to be taught. Because we all hailed from strong critical theory backgrounds, we knew a social justice thread was imperative. Through this lens, as we examined individual courses as well as the program as a whole, we began to ask questions such as: who owns literacy?  How do we want to present this? What about funds of knowledge and out-of-school literacies?  This line of questioning led us to realize that nowhere in our program did we account for parental and community involvement in students’ literacy learning.  This, to us, was a huge gap that needed to be filled. We decided to redesign a course entitled “Guiding the Reading Program,” changing it from a third assessment course to one on literacy leadership with a focus on developing skills that would assist teachers in employing community and family resources in school and district literacy practices and policies. I was the initial instructor for this course and looked to my experiences, as an instructional coach and administrative intern, to help me build the curriculum and key assessment experiences. 

Tough Conversations and Deep Reflection

When discussing family involvement, it is not uncommon to hear educators talk about how many parents attend PTSA meetings, come to Open House/Curriculum Nights, or support the band/athletic boosters. However, it becomes important to really consider which parents are involved and what percentage of the school they represent.  It is often eye-opening to realize large swaths of families are un- or under-represented at school events. For example, as the instructional specialist at a middle school in Maryland, I was part of a school leadership team who specifically sought to broaden our parent involvement, not only in how they were involved but also in who was involved.  We had a very active and invested community; so, when we collected data about who was coming into our school for social and academic activities and who was not, it was surprising to see we had almost no members of our Latino families represented. This required us to conduct deep reflection and address cultural divides. We thought we were providing appropriate communication with our families by sending home notices in backpacks and posting on our school’s social media and websites. However, when we asked members of the Latino community why we had limited attendance, they indicated to us more personal means of communication were needed. When we started picking up the phone and personally calling families, we found they were significantly more responsive; we had to bridge a cultural divide we did not realize we had built, to ensure all families felt welcome. This is not an uncommon experience that emerges once school leadership teams and teachers delve mindfully, deeply, and honestly into the degree to which families and community members are truly involved in schools. 

The Work

Figure 1

In my class, one of the early activities I ask teachers to complete is a pair of inventories regarding parental involvement practices.  The first is Salinas, Epstein, and Sanders’s (2012) An Inventory of Present Practices of School, Family, and Community Partnerships. It identifies six ways parents can be involved in schools (called “types” in this instrument) including: parenting, communicating, volunteering, home-learning, decision-making/leadership, and community collaboration. School members are asked to consider the degree to which statements listed under each type are true and in what grade levels. These responses help illuminate both traditional and nontraditional means of involvement and also show if there are patterns or trends in participation. I then pair this inventory with a second evaluation instrument from Beyond the Bake Sale (Henderson, Mapp, Johnson & Davies, 2007). This instrument uses five domains (building relationships, linking to learning, addressing differences, supporting advocacy, and sharing power) to help educators identify which of four versions of family-school partnerships best describes their school (partnership, open-door, come-if-we-call, or fortress). To help them to see patterns, I ask students to identify which version of partnerships their schools represent for each domain and place a sticky note in the appropriate location (see Figure 1). While most people would say they have a partnership school, especially at the elementary level, many individuals are surprised with the results of this survey.  There are areas suggested, such as including parents in curricular decisions, many of my students have not ever considered.

Figure 2

Between these two instruments, my students begin to get a clearer, and more accurate, picture of their schools’ strengths and needs with regard to parent and community partnerships. They are then asked to develop a family and community partnership grounded in the data they have collected from these two sources. I encourage them to think about how they can move their school to a higher version within one domain of the Beyond the Bake Sale rubric while also using some of the descriptors from the Epstein inventory to help frame goals and action steps. The projects that have emerged from this project have been organic, deeply-embedded in individual school needs, centered on literacy, and overall impactful. One resulting project was discussed in this blog by Hannah Kottraba in June when she wrote about her family heritage project. Other examples have included virtual science activities where parents and students engage in disciplinary literacy to solve scientific problems; pre-k students engaging in pen pal writing and subsequently building a garden with members of an assisted care facility (see Figure 2); online interactive math resources (focused on literacy needed for word problems); workshops that coach family members how to support reading with all ages of students; family culture exhibits; writers’ gallery celebrations; and international student shadowing days where high school students serve as hosts for international graduate students learning about America’s education system. Many of these projects addressed family and community populations who are often underrepresented in schools, and several have become multi-year or ongoing events.

It is important to remember that such projects are many times singletons, snapshots that occur once as a result of a course; the impetus being the need to complete a class assignment. I am not so naïve as to think these class assignments have suddenly made every school my students teach at a Partnership School. What is important is the paradigm shift that occurs as teachers undergo this process. They begin to seek out ways to better meet the criteria established by these two inventories; they become more attuned to cultural differences that may be acting as a barrier to some families and making them feel unwelcome with the school space; and they become more appreciative of the funds of knowledge parents and family members bring with them.

About the Author

Dr. Jennifer D. Morrison is an instructor at the University of South Carolina. Her experiences include being a middle and high school English teacher, gifted education resource teacher, and instructional coach.  She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Nevada, Reno, in Language, Literacy, and Culture.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher (AYA/ELA), an alumnus of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C., and has won multiple awards for teaching and writing including NCTE’s Paul and Kate Farmer English Journal Award and AERA’s Dissertation Award in Research on Teacher Induction. Currently, her research focuses on adolescent, digital, multimodal, and disciplinary literacies as well as narrative and qualitative methodologies.


Strengthening the Generations Through Agricultural Literacy

By: Alonzo McDonald, South Carolina High School Agriculture Teacher

Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash

Everybody knows the song, “Old McDonald had a farm.” Well, that song is about my dad. He’s the McDonald that had the farm…and the cows, and the peacocks, the ducks, the hogs and the mules. I’m the McDonald that took my passion for agriculture, which developed at a young age, and turned it into a career as an agricultural education teacher. Often, people believe teachers of elective courses are not concerned with literacy; however that is not the case. When teaching an elective course, you have to come up with creative ways to motivate students to engage in content literacy. I have found that I can foster student literacy through the community engagement of my students. 

One of the cornerstones of agricultural education programs is the desire to create productive citizens who serve their community. Through the Agricultural Education Program and Future Farmers of America (FFA) at Manning High School, students are molded into being model citizens that willingly give back to their community through various events and community partnerships that continue throughout the year. The motto of FFA reads “Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve.” The last line, “living to serve” is one that I think the students grasp without even realizing it, because it becomes so embedded in our work in and out of the classroom. When you connect the last line of the motto with the first line, “learning to do,” students are equipped with the tools needed to successfully give back to the community that made them.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Through various in class activities, articles from agriculture magazines, and hands-on experiences students gain content knowledge they can put to use and pass on to younger students, in one of our strongest community partnerships, at Manning Early Childhood Center (MECC). Students within the agriculture program are able to explain the content that they have learned throughout the semester in a way the younger students are able to understand and use as they work on the raised bed garden at MECC. My students are able to teach these younger students how to transfer this knowledge into a useful skill (i.e. seed depth and spacing, watering needs, pollination, importance of fertilizer, plant parts, etc.) that can be used in the school garden. When my students are explaining to four and five year olds the needs of plants, and seeing that the younger kids are actually understanding it, brings me joy. As a teacher, being able to see the products of our toil is always rewarding. 

Photo by Cathy VanHeest on Unsplash

Having good role models for students to emulate is important. Through a consistent partnership with the Clarendon County Master Gardeners, my agriculture students have learned ways to pass on agriculture knowledge to others. The master gardeners model the ways in which experiential knowledge can be transferred through shared gardening experiences. My students then use what they have learned in their interactions with the master gardeners, with the students at MECC. The master gardener volunteers are able to bring in their real-world knowledge and experiences to help enhance the students understanding of not only the task-at-hand, but meaningful life experiences. Through this partnership, students are able to experience what it feels like to have someone giving back to the community and investing in the students at our school. As a result, students are more willing and eager to gain a better understanding of agriculture so that they can pay it forward.

Several students have gained a new appreciation for different aspects of agriculture because of these partnerships and have taken additional steps to further enhance their knowledge through research. Students are more willing to engage in learning, because they want to be able to share their knowledge with younger students and understand the information they learn from the master gardeners. As a result of community partnerships, students learn to use the agriculture content vocabulary, which supports their learning in my class and future agricultural classes they may take in the future.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Agriculture is an important part of today’s society that is sometimes overlooked. As the global population increases, we need to make sure that our appreciation for what agriculture provides continues to increase, so that we have future generations who are interested in agriculture and want to contribute to the field of agriculture. There are many initiatives and programs that are in place to encourage the younger generations to be more interested in agriculture. Through partnerships with different agricultural organizations, the youth are being exposed to the many different aspects of agriculture. My challenge to you is expose your students to some of the many different avenues that lead to the wonderful world of agriculture.

About the Author

Alonzo McDonald is an Agricultural Education Teacher at Manning High School, in Manning, South Carolina. Alonzo earned his Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Education from Clemson University. He also holds a Masters of Education in STEM Leadership from American College of Education.


Learning about our families through the Family Heritage Project

By: Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina and Rocio Herron, Jackson Creek Elementary School

Last fall I taught a Family Dynamics course and was searching for a way to engage my undergraduate students in meaningful experiences with children and families; the course carries a community service component that is left up to the instructor to design and implement. I sought to involve my students in experiences that would help them develop strategies for authentic family and community engagement that they could later draw upon when they became classroom teachers.

I am very fortunate to be able to spend time in a local Pre-K classroom with a teacher, Rocio Herron, who willingly shares her students and families with me. Rocio has taught at Jackson Creek Elementary School since the school opened three years ago; the majority of the school population is African American (73%), followed by Latino students (13%), and 100% of the students receive free/reduced lunch.

Rocio and I have a history; she was my youngest son’s Pre-K teacher a few years ago (he is now 15). Rocio and I share similar views on teaching and learning and family engagement; we believe that children have a right to their language; children must be actively engaged in their learning; teachers must learn about their children lives outside of school in order to better teach them; and that trusting relationships with families are the cornerstone of teaching.

Family Heritage Project

I spend Friday mornings in Rocio’s classroom engaging the children in bilingual (Spanish/English) read alouds, songs, dances, and games. One Friday I mentioned to Rocio that I was teaching a course with a community service component and wondered if she had any ideas for my class. I explained the time commitment and my goals for the project and she excitedly exclaimed that she had a Family Heritage Project she was looking to do that would involve all three Pre-K classrooms.  

The purpose for the Pre-K Family Heritage project was to get to know the children and their families by engaging them in a project about their family. Rocio explained that she also wanted the families to know that they all had things to be proud of and to contribute to the school and society in general; too often our immigrant families and families of color are made to feel insignificant and that they have nothing to offer our schools or their children. Through the project, the families would investigate their heritage, family, and culture and uncover for themselves the tools they possess that can be used for helping their children learn; i.e. language, sewing, gardening.  I wanted my students to view the families as contributors of knowledge and see them through an asset-based lens where their funds of knowledge, their community-based ways of knowing (Moll, Amanti, Neff, González, 1992) are recognized as valuable instruments for school learning.  

The Family Heritage Project spanned a few weeks in the fall semester. Families were asked to come to school on three evenings; my students and I participated in all activities that took place over the three visits. The first evening was spent getting to know each other; Rocio engaged the families in a read aloud followed by a discussion, families sang songs that the children did in school, families played school games with the children and we all got to know each other. We expanded the view of ‘family heritage’ to include things that you do together as a family because we wanted to be inclusive of all families. Rocio asked them to think about things that they did together and gave the example of her spending time at the beach while in her home country of Costa Rica; she showed her beach bag and other artifacts. I shared that my family enjoyed going on road trips and explained that my artifact would be a car and a roadmap.

The second evening the families worked on creating a physical representation, an artifact, of their family and/or family heritage using supplies we had at school; paper, cereal boxes, soup cans, etc. The only rule for the artifacts was that they had to be handmade, nothing could be store bought. There was so much excitement, so many conversations and a busy hum filled the room! The third and final evening was a potluck celebration where each family shared their artifact and story with the group, the children presented a song, and we celebrated with a meal. I shared my car and road map representing our love of road trips, my students also shared their various artifacts as did all of the teachers. Artifacts were displayed on tables for all to see.  Once everyone shared, we had our meal which was the annual Thanksgiving celebration.

As I walked around, I heard laughter, families making connections with one another and sharing stories!   It was truly joyful!

What would we do different?

We were so eager for the project that we held the events in one month! We realize that having the meetings so close inhibited attendance, especially for the second meeting. The next time we do this, we will space out the meetings over a couple of months or over six weeks. 

Closing thoughts

As noted above immigrant families and families of color are often viewed through a deficit lens where what they do not posses is highlighted, for example; families do not know English or they live in a high poverty area. One of our main goals for the Family Heritage Night was for families to uncover their own riches and recognize that they indeed posses knowledge, skills, and strategies that will help their children succeed in school.  Engaging the undergraduate students helped them see this firsthand and also helped them see that family engagement is not scary. Finally, if we approach our families with love and respect and demonstrate that in everything that we do and say, our families begin to trust us and a trusting relationship with families is the foundation upon which everything is built.


Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & González, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into practice31(2), 132-141.

About the Authors

Julia López-Robertson is a Professor of Instruction & Teacher Education at the University of South Carolina.

Rocio Herron is a Pre-K teacher Jackson Creek Elementary School.