Table Talks—Literacy via Student-led Discussions

Imagine tables in the cafeteria of any school. Students from different classrooms and several grade levels are seated at the tables. Classes are mixed together. No, it isn’t lunch time. 

A moderator hands out a piece of text or introduces a topic of discussion. Half sheets of paper are scattered across the tables. Kids have access to as many as they might need. Pencils are provided. The moderator poses a question. Students are asked to reflect and write. Light instrumental music might be playing quietly, adding calm to the scene. Paper cups containing pretzels, fish crackers or other snacks are provided for all students. 

The older students have been coached. They jump right in—writing, reflecting, getting involved.  They model the expectation. 

Then, kids talk. 

About what?

Success mostly. The discussion starts with academics and stays with academics. What does it mean to read carefully? How is reading like detective work? What do we mean when we say something has a double meaning? Why do some people get A’s on everything? Does going to college matter? Why? Why not? What is an essay? How are they written? What is evidence? How is it used? Is writing important? Why? Does math really matter? How would you define science? What have you learned lately? 

These are Table Talks, and the list of topics and questions is practically endless. The only stipulation is that the discussion centers on academics, the keys to being successful at/in school. Of course, the discussion moves into life outside of school at times, which is fine (wonderful, actually), but the focus remains on the process of fostering meaningful communication about success. Kids think, write and share. The ones who are more comfortable can lead the way. Quieter kids may have great ideas to share, but writing might be their preferred medium. It is their time to talk—but only if they choose to. It’s all about student-initiated communication. As teachers, we do our very best to stay out of it, aside from a supervision standpoint. Occasionally (more at the beginning) we direct or coach, but the goal is for the kids to talk with each other. 

There are a number of benefits to this kind of student interaction, one of which is cooperative learning. Focusing cross-classroom discussions on how to achieve success in school helps introduce and expose students not only to multiple perspectives, but also to multiple teachers and circumstances. It also encourages kids to realize they can talk in places other than the classroom about the topic of success. Another benefit is the opportunity to honor students’ voices and their knowledge about school. As anti-bias educator Peggy McIntosh notes, “[Students] are authorities on schooling, but nobody asks them.”

The same research that supports Teaching Tolerance’s Mix It Up at Lunch Day program applies here: Positive intergroup experiences reduce prejudice and improve intergroup relations. With Table Talks, students from different subject areas, grade levels, honors and "regular" classes are all brought together. The experience broadens students’ engagement—in topics that matter in school.

I am working with an art teacher at our middle school to get this process started. We want Table Talks to be a first step toward fostering a campus-wide emphasis on literacy. We both admit things will start small, but we also know anything worth doing must start somewhere. If this sounds uncomfortable, you know the potential for learning is huge. Are Table Talks a possibility at your school? Let me know in the comments. Maybe together, we can start something that truly impacts student learning.

Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.

New Web Package: Bridge to the Ballot

It’s big year for educators who teach civil rights! Fifty years ago this spring, three famous marches took place in Selma, Alabama, all of which helped spur the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August of 1965.

The nation is watching Selma again—through films, news coverage, exhibits, novels and lessons tailored for the classroom. Selma may be a household name now, but activists had been laying groundwork for years prior to the famous marches, and understanding that history is crucial to understanding the upcoming anniversaries. Our new Web package—“Bridge to the Ballot”—can help you effectively teach about the struggle for voting rights in the South, before, during and after the Selma-to-Montgomery March.

Civil rights history deserves more than our commemoration. Barriers still exist to equal voting rights in the United States, and the classroom is one setting where that fact can and should be interrogated. The resources in “Bridge to the Ballot” can help you empower your students to apply the lessons of Selma—including the power of the vote—in their own communities. We hope you’ll explore and share!

It’s Mix Model School Time!

2014 was a banner year for creative and successful Mix It Up at Lunch Days! If your school put together a great Mix event and has kept the Mix spirit going all year, we hope you’ll apply to have your school designated as a Mix It Up Model School.

As a Mix Model School, your school will be recognized for fostering the kind of welcoming school environment all students deserve. We'll profile your school on the Mix It Up website, showing educators and students across the country—and even around the world—how a committed team can do Mix It Up at Lunch Day well. Your efforts will serve as an example for other schools striving for inclusiveness.

How to Become a Mix It Up Model School

Mix It Up Model Schools embrace respect and inclusiveness as core values and mix it up throughout the year. The 2014-2015 Mix It Up Model Schools will have demonstrated creativity and success in the following areas:

1. Participation: Your school hosted a Mix It Up at Lunch Day in 2014 (it did not have to fall on National Mix It Up at Lunch Day, Oct. 28).

2. Extension: Your school followed up with at least two additional Mix It Up-related programs or events on your campus.

3. Organization: Diverse members of the school community (e.g., cafeteria staff, aides, administration, teachers or students) helped organize Mix It Up.

4. Publicity: Your school publicized Mix It Up at Lunch Day or celebrated inclusiveness through a variety of channels, such as posters, announcements and other media.

5. Implementation: Your students and colleagues saw Mix It Up at Lunch Day as effective and fun!

Don’t meet all the criteria yet? No worries. Applications aren't due until February 18.

We’re looking forward to reading your success story!

What We’re Reading This Week: January 23 The Southern Poverty Law Center case on behalf of Birmingham, Alabama students sprayed with mace by high school resource officers went before a federal judge this week. U.S. Representatives Martha Roby and Terri Sewell have co-sponsored a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to activists who marched in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 on what is now called “Bloody Sunday."

Black Girl Dangerous: Princess Harmony Rodriguez shares a deeply personal essay on growing up transgender and the life-saving role that anime played in her younger years by providing rare positive images reflective of her identity.

Common Dreams: This opinion piece situates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s views on education within a discussion of school privatization and educational inequities today.

Disability Scoop: John McDonald, an autistic student, and his family filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice after John was forced to leave his service dog outside his school.

Fusion: Dubbed "Girl Scouts for the modern age," the Radical Brownies are a troop of girls who focus their civic engagement efforts on racial equality and becoming better allies.

National Public Radio: This middle school class is learning about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner—all semester long. Take a few minutes to listen to the students' perspectives and their teacher's guidance.

The Washington Post: A new report by the Southern Education Foundation finds that the majority of U.S. public school students live in poverty.

The White House: Teen representatives of the Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative attended the White House Tribal Nations Conference this week to discuss issues specific to Native youth and the barriers that keep them from success.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to and put What We’re Reading This Week in the subject line.

Supporting LGBTQ Youth in the Wake of Suicide

Editor's Note: This blog post first appeared on Gender Spectrum's website under the title "Responses in the Wake of Suicide: What You Can Do to Support Gender-expansive and Transgender Youth." It is reposted here with permission.

Gender Spectrum joins in the pain and sorrow following the recent death of a transgender* teenager whose online expression of pain and call to action has gone viral.

The outpouring of support from those sharing this story clearly comes from those yearning to make the world a better place for young people.

But while online calls to action can be effective tools to create visibility and action, there can also be a downside to some viral stories depicting deaths by suicide.

Three years ago twelve LGBTQ and Mental Health Organizations co-published a guide with recommendations about how to talk about suicide and LGBTQ youth. The document shared the best research in the field, which indicated that:

  1. Viral campaigns about suicide and LGBTQ youth can make suicide seem like a logi­cal consequence of the kinds of bullying, rejection, discrimination and exclusion that LGBTQ people often experience
  2. Idealizing people who have died by suicide may encourage others to identify with the victim or seek to emulate them
  3. The underlying causes of most suicide deaths are complex and can’t be explained by one incident or factor
  4. Detailed descriptions of a person’s suicide death can be a factor in leading vulnerable individuals to imitate the act

We encourage everyone who cares about transgender young people and suicide to learn more by reading this 4 page document.

Now is a time for us to be proactive. We all have a responsibility to use the variety of tools at our disposal to educate, legislate, counsel, organize, and demonstrate so that no young people feel that being transgender means their life is not worth living.

We need to identify the many ways in which individuals experience personal resiliency while facing the challenges inherent in society’s narrowly defined gender roles.

It is not enough to temporarily mobilize in the wake of tragedy. There are simple, yet powerful things every one of us can all do as a regular part of our lives. Gender Spectrum collaborated with the HRC Foundation in 2014 on a report called, “Supporting and Caring for Our Gender-Expansive Youth.” In the report we identify three ways we can all make a difference for youth:

  1. Educate yourself. There is so much more to gender than we realize. Even for those of us who spend our lives dedicated to this issue, we continue to learn every day.
  2. Create space in which children and youth can safely explore gender identity** and expression. Listen to what young people are telling you about themselves. You don’t need to worry about what to say, just listening will make a tremendous difference.
  3. Advocate for more gender-inclusive environments within your community’s schools, medical facilities, religious and other institutions. Your voice can make all the difference to a child or teen who otherwise feels isolated and alone.

Before you forward a viral image or story related to young person who died from suicide, consider how you can help youth see a future that they can be a part of.

The Gender Spectrum website has considerable resources focused on parenting, teens, education, medical, legal, mental health, social services and faith.

Additional useful resources include:

  1. PFLAG: provides specific resources for parents with transgender children.
  2. The Family Acceptance Project: a research, intervention, education and policy initiative that works to prevent health and mental health risks for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children and youth, including suicide, homelessness and HIV – in the context of their families.
  3. The Transgender Law Center: works to change law, policy, and attitudes so that all people can live safely, authentically, and free from discrimination regardless of their gender identity or expression.
  4. The Trevor Project: provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.

*Transgender: Sometimes used as an umbrella term to describe anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms. More narrowly defined, it refers to an individual whose gender identity does not match their assigned birth sex. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation (attraction to people of a specific sex and/or gender.) Therefore, transgender people may additionally identify with a variety of other sexual identities as well.

**Gender identity: One’s innermost core concept of self which can include male, female, a blend of both or neither, and many more—how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different than the sex assigned at birth. Individuals become conscious of this between the ages 18 months and 3 years. Most people develop a gender identity that matches their biological sex. For some, however, their gender identity is different from their biological or assigned sex. Some of these individuals choose to socially, hormonally and/or surgically change their physical appearance to more fully match their gender identity and some do not.

Gender Spectrum provides education, training and support to help create a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens.

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