Student Tips for Educators

October 2, 2020 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories | By

I reached out to one of the organizers of the Palo Alto Youth Art Protest by emailing the address printed on a poster. The young man, Hudson, who replied was gracious enough to answer my questions in detail, because, as he told me, “my little brother goes to Gunn, so I’m trying.” 

As an educator I asked Hudson what we could do to make our schools more equitable for students of color. He said he had “a lot of experiences that were less than pleasant and quite problematic” over his 12 years in our Palo Alto schools. “These ranged between racial slurs from administration to the erasure of support systems for BIPOC within the school.” (Email Aug 13, 2020) 

Hudson wrote detailed answers to questions I asked in email and then agreed to a follow up interview, which I have included in this blog post. Here, I will also summarize what, I believe, are his suggestions to Palo Alto Educators.

Deepen Our Curriculum

Many of his suggestions centered around more inclusion in all areas of our curriculum. He mentioned he did not learn about East Palo Alto history. “I wish I learned about systems of oppression within the everyday lives of people. Such as Education Discrimination, Job Discrimination, Housing Discrimination, Redlining, The School-To-Prison-Pipeline, The Prison-Industrial-Complex, just to name a few.” He would have liked to hear stories from more perspectives.

Which leads me to his second suggestion, which I will quote. 

Connect with our Students, Personally

“Something I think teachers could do in Palo Alto would be to always be aware of the socio-economic disadvantages that the people of color typically face in their classroom given that national housing discrimination, job discrimination other things like that force most of the kids of color in our area into East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park.  I think that can affect a child’s ability to learn and thrive in the classroom and I think if a teacher is self aware and aware of that, then they’ll be able to maneuver and help that student in the ways that they would need. Which would then create equitable solutions for the classroom.”

Those words spilled from him, as you will hear if you listen to the video. I am taking time to process their meaning myself. I believe what he was so diplomatically telling me was that I may have been teaching callously. He said, “You may not be aware, yes, but I think some people are aware and think that it does not affect their students. They still expect the same output from that student as another that doesn’t not face the same challenges in their day to day life.”

As a Teacher Librarian, I know I fail my students. I hope that I can build a strong enough relationship with each of them that they can tell me, honestly, when I do. I need to listen so I can do better. Hudson’s words challenge me to reach out. And to stop and listen – not react defensively – when a student trusts me enough to tell me a way I can improve.

Put Our Money Where our Mouths Are

His third suggestion revolved around creating and sustaining systems of support for our students of color. When I asked him for specifics, he mentioned a program he participated in at Gunn called College Pathways. It was “a system of support for students of color in order to try to orchestrate them staying on track and getting accepted into two year and four year colleges. It’s success rate my year was like 94%. So it was effective.” Hudson mentioned the Program was on the  list to be cut and students had to fight for it.  “A lot of Seniors and Juniors that came before me fought hard to try to make sure it stayed because they had older siblings that succeeded through the program. And I saw it work with my own eyes. That’s why I was like you can’t really take that away.”

Hire and Retain More Teachers of Color

A fourth area for improvement in Palo Alto schools Hudson brought up was recruitment and retainment of teachers of color. “And then – not to mention – there’s only like…at Gunn there’s not a single Black teacher. There was one Kenyan teacher, although, you know, he is of African descent, he cannot exactly relate to all the nuances of growing up in America for sure.” 

We can reform our curriculum to include more perspectives. We can reach out to our students of color personally. We can ask them what they need to succeed. We can invest in systems of support – including College Pathways – for our Black and Brown students. And, we can ask our District – and ourselves – why don’t we have more teachers of color?

We all want our schools to improve. I hope we can all follow Hudson’s example and take a few brave steps in a new direction. Our schools – our students – are worth it. If you have specific suggestions for – or experiences in – doing this work, contact me at KristinAkerHowellATgmailDOTcom to share them.

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Gone Fishing – A Novel for Second Graders

June 13, 2015 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Book Reviews, Libraries, libraries, teaching, writing | By

Gone Fishing is a treasure for many reasons. First of all: kids love it. It has just enough mischief and naughtiness to spice up a read-a-loud and keep any reluctant reader turning pages. The sibling rivalry at the center of this story will hit home with anyone who has, well, had a sibling. Even for those of us who don’t normally fish, the slimy details keep us involved and invested because we identify with Sam and rejoice as he overcomes his frustrations and failures.

The second reason this book is such a treat you may not even notice up front: it’s a novel-in-verse. And what’s even better is that the audience is second and third grade, where we have a dearth of novels-in-verse. Gone Fishing is perfect for this age group because the subject matter is on-point emotionally: a younger sister horns in on her big brother’s fishing trip with dad. Even more appealing to teachers: the poetry is meticulous. After you’ve been through the book once to catch the plot, you will enjoy re-reading to enjoy Wissinger’s craft. Here, the various poetic forms reveal the emotions as true and entertaining, without being overwrought. And, each form is outlined in a neat appendix, handy for future – and practicing – poets.

Gone Fishing is a natural fit for the second grade English Language Arts Standards in Reading Literature. The story is told from two very different points of view – both Sam and Lucy ­– making this a perfect read to “speak in a different voice for each character when reading dialogue aloud (CCSS ELA Literacy 2.6).” This short book will help round out the range of complexity called for in the Standards (CCSS ELA Literacy 2.10) by introducing a wide variety of poetry.

Some students may be lucky enough to try writing some of their own poetry using the examples in the back of this book. Turning our complaints, failures and frustrations into entertaining poems can take a lot of the sting out of the curves we all get thrown every now and again. Kudos to Wissinger for setting this shining example of resiliency.


  • Title Gone Fishing
  • Author Tamera Will Wissinger
  • Illustrator Matthew Cordell
  • Copyright 2013
  • ISBN 9780547820118
  • Dewey Decimal Number Fic
  • Reading Range 1-3 (2.6)

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Encourage At Risk Behavior

September 23, 2013 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Book Reviews | By

Recently I ate dinner with e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, who is brave. I say that not simply because she wrote Fat Angie, but because she came to San Francisco to meet a bunch of writers she didn’t know for dinner. Over the Bay Bridge. At six p.m.

Clearly, she’s not from The Bay Area.

But yet, Eunice set up a dinner – over the internet – with strangers, and drove up from LA – from the morning commute – to meet us. We brought the food. She ate it.

Not only is she brave. She’s trusting.

This dinner was one stop on Eunice’s “At Risk” summer. Rather than do a typical sign-the-title-page book tour, she is touring the country, actually meeting and interacting with her readers. She is taking some serious risks.

Although, I don’t think that’s what she had in mind by the term “at – risk.” I believe she meant working with kids who are “at – risk.” But her summer has put her in some high risk situations: driving rental cars in Bay Area traffic, meeting strangers in private homes, eating surprise food, and above-all-else, telling the truth about herself, to anyone who will listen. She puts herself at risk everyday.

To me, that’s the beauty in Eunice and her work. Her bravery encourages us.

That evening, Eunice did two things to make me braver. First of all: she spoke up. She simply sat at the table with us and told us about herself. Even though we’d never met. That was risky. Maybe we would have a different opinion or attitude. But she made herself vulnerable immediately, easily and with a laugh. Several laughs, actually.

Her honesty enabled me to speak up.

The second thing she did to make me brave was she listened. She paid attention to each and every person at the table. Listening is risky because you might not like what you hear. Or you might change. Or you might feel you have to respond. Eunice did respond. She asked questions after every story.

Eunice’s book, Fat Angie, may be a powerful force, but I believe its because Eunice is so gentle. She knows people so well because she can interact with us honestly. She can risk a conversation, risk her time, risk a change, risk a bad dinner, a different opinion, or a wrong turn. And laugh.

I hope you read Fat Angie. It’s about a girl who takes risks. She’s hurt, bullied and ostracized. But, ultimately, Angie’s efforts pay off. Angie is brave because she puts herself at-risk again, even though she’s been hurt in the past.

The book is a quick read because the characters enter your heart quickly, as if they simply sat down at your table and started asking you questions.

If you are a high school teacher, I’ve got a story sheet for your students on narrative structure (part of the common core). It’s free to download. Help yourself.

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Plant a Seed

June 12, 2013 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, teaching | By

A seed is full of genetic material. It contains a bit of food to get the next creation growing.

Without a seed, a writing class is a writing club.

After the fun, after the friends, a writing class needs a seed: a small, inspiring, critical component. I like to read a story. Usually I ask a question – or introduce an idea – before I read a story. That question – or idea – is the seed.

Before Audrey Wood’s Heckedy Peg we talked about foreshadowing. As I read the story to a group of second and third graders we discussed how the items children needed from the market foreshadowed what they became at the witch’s house, which foreshadowed how their mother saved them.

I asked: Did you foreshadow something in your story?

I never point out a lack of something in a child’s story. I know, from writing my own stories, that it is far too easy to shut down the creative process. I learn more by seeing new things in other stories. When I’m really lucky, I might make a connection to my own writing. When I’m fortunate as a teacher, one of my students might find his own connection.

After reading Heckedy Peg, I said, “Sometimes we give ourselves a gift at the beginning of our stories we forget. Maybe if we have trouble with an ending, we can re-read the beginning we have already written.”

“Oh!” said a second grade student, “I just thought of an idea for my story.”

That is my greatest hope for students when we read and discuss literature: that they will make a connection to their own writing. And, that this connection will help them to grow.

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We Are Not Alone

June 10, 2013 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, teaching | By

Kids who write need friends who write. Every writer needs friends. We need to be heard. Writing friends are special because they listen to our stories.

Writing friends share a story.

Writing friends share a story.

Friends believe us. They know the names of our characters, the places we’ve created and the challenges we face. They ask us questions. They cheer for us and laugh alongside us. They remind us about what we have forgotten.

I love to see kids sit next to each other in writing class. They don’t always read each other’s journals, but they frequently discuss their stories together.

Often, there is laughter.

It is lonely to make a new world. When we invite a friend – a real person – into this new place, we know we are not alone. Our friend has entered with us. She will help us get this place ready for other visitors: which is our greatest dream and biggest fear.

In writing class, many kids are ready to share their work immediately – sometimes we read to everyone at the end of the day – and some kids may take almost a year until they find someone they trust, or are ready to read to the group.

When a writer is afraid, often her friend will read her work aloud for her. This way she knows her work matters to us.

Sometimes our writing friends are the only ones who demonstrate that our work matters. Writing friends have many important jobs.

Writing friendships are delicate because writers tend to be sensitive. Something intended as an observation may be felt as a criticism. When spoken by one we trust, however, just such an observation can lead to growth. For example, a fourth grade student recently commented to another: “Your main characters are always girls.”

Instead of feeling hurt, this writer took the challenge. She wrote her next story outside of her comfort zone, with a fascinating new premise. The class begged to hear sections of her new story read aloud each week. When friends believe in us enough to listen carefully and tell the truth, everyone benefits.

We don’t need 500 friends. Anyone – kids or adults – would be lucky to have one or two true friends.

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