“There’s no room for you here…you can’t play”

I’ve always been intrigued by play. I knew going back into the classroom this year, after being out in a coaching role, that there was going to be space for play throughout the day in our second grade classroom. Our classroom community was built on the principles of play. Play is how we learn, how we think, how we connect.

Throughout this year I have learned a lot about my students by watching them play. I would argue that they have learned more about each other from their play. But just recently their play has started to feel different.

I first noticed a change during indoor recess where I heard a student say, “There’s no room for you here…you can’t play.” Nothing anyone who works with children hasn’t heard before but this idea of “no room” and “you can’t play” started to spread. Not only was it continuing to show up at recess but also during the other parts of our day.  Questions like, “Can I be your partner?”  and “Hey, can I join?” went ignored or even rejected at times. This was new. New behavior that I hadn’t noticed happening before.

It was apparent that we had to stop and address it. Vivian Gussin Paley, who in my mind, is the expert in children’s play wrote a book called, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. In this book she writes about this rule in her classroom and her students experiences with it. I decided to take a move from her practice and introduce this statement to my class, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.

Before I showed them the poster with the saying I asked them a series of questions to help me understand what was happening better. It looked like this…

I’m going to ask you all some questions that will help me think. I want you to close your eyes and lower your head. I’m going to begin asking questions now and please just keep your heads down and be as honest as you can.

Raise your hand if you have felt left out in this classroom.

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Raise your hand if someone has told you that you couldn’t play in this classroom.

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Raise your hand if your feelings have been hurt because someone in here wouldn’t play with you.

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Raise your hand if you have told someone they couldn’t play.

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Raise your hand if you have left someone out.

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Once we were finished I put the number of hands raised next to the statements and then showed them the poster.

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The conversation that followed was powerful and eye-opening. My students have worked hard on being kind, safe, respectful, and brave throughout this year but there was a hiccup and they realized that they had to figure it out.  At the end the students wanted to sign the poster and keep it up as a reminder. But for me, my reminder, wasn’t the poster. The reminders are the questions I can’t get out of my mind as witnessed those tiny hands raising again and again.

Questions like:

Who raised their hand every time?

Who didn’t raise their hand because they were scared too?

Who am I missing?

What am I missing?

Who feels like they have power?

Who could might feel powerless?

These pictures are also a constant reminder that each and every day I have to do better. I have to do better at continuing to build the inclusive community we all want. I have to do better because now I know better.

“By kindergarten…a structure begins to be revealed and soon will be carved in stone. Certain children will have the right to limit the social experiences of their classmates. Henceforth a ruling class will notify others of their acceptability, and the outsiders learn to anticipate the sting of rejection…spreading like a weed from grade to grade.”

Vivian Gussin Paley

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play


Celebrating through Stories


September 15 through October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage month.  As a country we celebrate the heritage, culture, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans. Of course this type of celebrating does not just happen during this month but is incorporated throughout all we do all year long.

As a young African-American girl it was hard for me during the month of February when I felt that Black History month was spent learning about slavery and hardship. The celebratory aspect was often lost for me. As a teacher I have tremendous power over how students feel during these months of celebration. In our classroom community we choose to celebrate stories, authors, and people who represent this rich culture of beauty and strength.  It is important to acknowledge and participate with the rest of the country as we pause to lift up our fellow Hispanic and Latino Americans. Here are the stories, biographies, and histories our classroom community has enjoyed during this time…

Little Night, Nochecita by Yuyi Morales Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 7.57.17 PM

My class fell in love with the playful nature of Little Night. They wanted to take time to look through all the pictures  to find all the places Mother Sky looked for Little Night. They also enjoyed having the Spanish text to go along with the English text. One student commented, “I feel like we are playing hide and seek too!”



Little People, Big Dreams Frida Kahlo

“Frida Kahlo taught the world to wave goodbye to bad things and say “Viva la vida…Live Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 7.58.00 PMlife.”

This quote from the text has sparked a saying in our classroom community as things happen throughout the day you can often hear someone saying, “viva la vida”. This picture book biography was the first introduction to the life and work of Frida Kahlo for each and every one of my students. They were fascinated by how she overcame so many things. They couldn’t believe how she was able to draw from her bed or how she used mirrors to draw self-portraits.


Nino Wrestles the World and Rudas by Yuyi Morales

These two laugh out loud stories captured the attention of all my students almost immediately. They jumped right in and read along with me as the author so beautifully combined Spanish and English to tell and adventure tale of Nino. Students said that you couldn’t read one without the other and many tried to use many of Morales craft moves in their own writing. Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 7.58.44 PM

Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 7.59.30 PMBut why? But why? But why? This question could be heard over and over again as students listened to the story of Sylvia Mendez in this beautifully written account of her family’s fight for justice. This is definitely a book we will visit again and again as we think about people who have overcome adversity.




Maya’s Blanket, La Manta De Maya by Monica Brown

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According to my students this book read like a guessing game. They couldn’t wait to see what Maya and her abuelita would create next with the 

fabric from the blanket.  I noticed that his book also sparked many ideas for writing. Students used the example of the playful text structure to create their own recycling tale.



Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell

In addition to the wonderful story of Mira and how she joined forces with an artist to create beautiful murals in her community my students were captivated by the author’s note in the end. Once they discovered that this story was based on the true story of Rafael and Candice Lopez ,who organized to create beautiful murals around their city, they started thinking of how they could do similar things in our community.

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Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book by Yuyi Morales

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We got to the last page where Grandma Beetle gave a wink and the class erupted, “

READ IT AGAIN” and so we did! Students love to read it along with me as the text has a playful repetitive structure that was fun to read. But the most fun was listening to all the theories around who was Senor Calavera and where did he want to take her?!


Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 8.01.27 PMDanza! Amalia Hernandez and El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico by Duncan Tonatiuh

“I can’t wait to tell my mom about her, she will be so excited because she’s from Mexico City too!” A student couldn’t hold this in as I read the first few pages of Danza.  Students enjoyed listening to Ami’s story and how she worked hard and was able to start her own dance school that became famous and toured all over the world.


Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote by Duncan Tonatiuh

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Many of students shared connections or stories while listening to this migrant’s tale. We took our time through this book and read it over a couple of days. Our conversations were deep, but felt as if they brought us a little more together. This tale takes readers through the experience of what it may be like to leave everything you k

now to go to the unknown. It was a powerful read for us.


Bravo by Margarita Engle

These poems were a window for most but also for some a mirror. They got to see themselves, their heritage, and culture celebrated through the hard work of the people honored in this book. We will continue to revisit these poems as a way to learn about people who have made a difference in our world.

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Call me Tree, Llamame Arbol by Maya Christina GonzalezScreen Shot 2017-10-05 at 8.03.08 PM

“Is this a yoga book Mrs. Burkins?” This bilingual text invites students to want to read both the English and Spanish. Many students physically tried the poses as the book was read aloud. One student even suggested we play soft music the next time we read it. They enjoyed the way the illustrations completely matched what the children were doing in the book. This was a very fun read with them.

Silence Is Not Always Golden

Over the summer I came across two tweets in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy that caused me to stop and immediately reflect. This was during a time where again the top of headline news was injustice. The tweets pictured below felt true, sincere, and were a call for action.

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Personally, I have been struggling with silence. More specifically, with battling my own perceptions of who is silent around issues of injustice and who is not. I have been struggling with jealousy of people who could choose to be silent and their day not be affected. Because for me, silence has been the cause of deep pain.

So when I read these tweets and others like them, I knew I did not want a classroom community where silence was the status quo. I did not want children who live in the same world as I do,  hear the same headlines, and live the same truth as I do to feel silence from me. Most importantly, I didn’t want children in my classroom to feel the sting that silence can bring.

I made a promise to myself and the community of learners that would soon walk into my classroom that I would not be silent. Rather I would be a careful listener and a patient facilitator ready to slow down and welcome critical conversations as they arise.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 6.53.58 PMWell it wasn’t long before I had to make good on my promise. The second day of school while reading, Rulers of the Playground by Joseph Kuefler, a student raised their hand and states, “Mrs. Burkins, the author said ‘he’ and called him a ‘king’ and that character is a girl it should be ‘she’ and ‘queen’.” This comment sparked a lively conversation on gender stereotypes and gender qualifiers that didn’t end with students agreeing. Students made comments back and forth suggesting what girls and boys can do, should wear, and be like. Students dissected the character’s names and tried to make claims around what constituted as “girl” names and “boy” names. At the tender age of 7 these children had strong ideas

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 6.52.34 PMaround gender and the role gender plays in their lives. In this conversation my role was that of a careful listener and patient facilitator ready to help guide the conversation with questions like these: What make you say that? Who gets to decide what “girls” and “boys” can wear? What in the illustration and words made you feel this?


The very  next day while reading Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwell, the opportunity to discuss presented itself again. As I turned to the secoScreen Shot 2017-08-30 at 6.57.23 PMnd page of the story a student states, “Mrs. Burkins, he has black skin like you.” There was an immediate feeling in the room that I couldn’t read. I just knew it felt different than when we started the book. During the pause another student said, “She doesn’t have black skin her skin is brown…see!” “No”, the student replied, “her skin is black she has black skin”.

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I then waited. The conversation continued. More students joined with their ideas and feelings. Most students seemed to struggle with what they wanted to say. I asked, “What does it mean to have black skin?” Then one student said, “look at this shirt…it is black. Her skin does not look like this.” I walked next to the shirt and the conversation shifted. I then asked what they noticed? As the conversation continued students started to talk about skin being brown but then asked why people say “black people” when no one has “black” skin? We left the conversation with that question and decided to think about it. One student even suggested maybe we could read about it. Which we will do.


In both instances the conversations didn’t end with the issue solved and wrapped up. They ended inviting more room for continuous thinking about the issues and wonders we are all having as we hear and see things in our world. I’m not sure where our journey will take us but I am committed to constant reflection, allowing space and time for conversations, and supporting the conversations through critical questions.

My roles in these conversations are that of a careful listener and patient facilitator ready with questions that help guide thinking. I don’t take a silent stance but rather a stance that invites healthy reflective conversations around issues that matter to the group. My hope is that our budding classroom community feels welcome to have conversations that are pressing on their minds and it’s a normal part of the way we live as a community to slow down and have them. There are many ways not to be silent. What does not being silent mean to you and the community of learners around you?


The Girl with the Green Face: Creating a classroom community for all students

In third grade, I authored a story called, The Girl with the Green Face. I remember being so proud of the story I wrote. It took so much time to think of an idea, write the first draft, and we were even fortunate enough to be able to use the word processor to type our story out. I also remember how careful I was with the illustrations. I felt like a real artist and could add the details the way I wanted them. I remember paying attention to all the little details too, like words on labels and doors, adding speech and thought bubbles. That was 27 years ago and I still remember the emotional and physical experience of writing that story.

Fast forward 5 years ago cleaning out my parents’ basement and I came across the story. I was so excited to open it up and read it again because again I remembered the emotional and physical experience of writing my first “real” book. As I began to open the cover and read each page with laser sharp eyes, as a way to somehow transport myself into the experience once more. I didn’t feel excitement but rather extreme sadness.

My family lived in a small town at the time in Illinois. We were one of two African-American families in the town and the only non-white children in our school. In fact, this was mostly true for me until my junior year of high school.

The story I wrote was about a girl named Kelly who was a cheerleader with brown hair, brown eyes, and peach colored skin. She believed that all the other cheerleaders were beautiful because the got to put this “green mud” on their face but Kelly’s mom wouldn’t let her. Ultimately Kelly decides to use it anyway when she gets to school. Unfortunately for Kelly the “green mud” won’t come off and her face is green. She begins to try everything to get it off and makes up excuses and devises plans to explain why her face is green. In her last effort to get the “green mud” off she tries her mom’s most special cream. But this cream was worse in her mind…”It didn’t make her beautiful at all. It just made her face dark brown.” In the end Kelly went to her mom and she took her to get a facial and she was back to “normal”.

As I stood there in complete silence and utter sadness, I recognized what I hadn’t allowed myself to process. That I, at a very young age, recognized myself as “other” and measured myself against the majority without even having words or the understanding to articulate what I was feeling. The characters in my story were White and I am African-American. In fact, I fully expected to open my book and see African American characters.

In the story Kelly was searching for something to make her “beautiful” like the other girls. Kelly was a cheerleader…just like I was in third grade. Kelly did things she wasn’t supposed to even after her mom told her not too…just like my younger self.  Kelly’s mom’s actions and phrases resembled my mother exactly but she didn’t look like my mom. Her dad in the story traveled like my dad did but he didn’t look like my dad.

This story was my story. As I relived this experience recently by sharing it with a friend I began to question. What was it that stood in my way of telling my story? A story where the characters looked like me and felt like me. Did I feel connected to the classroom community? Could I see myself on the walls, in the talk, and the stories that were told day-to-day in the classroom community? Was there someone in the classroom community to affirm that beauty isn’t prepackaged or look one way? And ultimately, in the story Kelly concluded that the worst possible thing to happen was her skin turning dark brown, which as the author of the story was the color that mirrors my own.

How do we as educators work each day towards a classroom community where students feel free and safe to not only write their story but be their story? How do we work towards my story not repeating itself in classrooms across our world?

First it starts with us. We as educators must take inventory on our own lives and our own experiences in order to step back and view the community in front of us. This happens even before the students step foot into the classroom.

Mariana Souto-Manning in her book, Reading Writing, and Talk: Inclusive Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners K-2, offers this, “The inventory must start with yourself and with your own practices…teaching is not culture-free. Nor are curricula. Teaching practices should be (re)centered to both honor children’s cultures, languages, and identities and to foster academic success.”

In order to create and maintain a healthy classroom community where students are free and safe to be themselves and love themselves, I offer that it first starts with us. We must take inventory of who we are and recognize the power these identities have in the classroom community.

Secondly, building classroom communities is about allowing students to see themselves on the walls of our room, the conversations that happen, and as a valuable participant in the learning community. What if at 8 years old I looked around the room in my third grade classroom and saw brown faces like myself? Or books that had stories of many kinds of people that weren’t just about struggle?

Allowing students to fill the walls with their stories, their thinking, their learning process, their faces encourages them to use their voice in conversations, problem solving, and day-to-day happenings in the classroom community. Which in turn hopefully gives a sense to each child that they are a valuable piece of the learning community.

Lastly, it’s committing ourselves to understanding a culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally relevant teaching is a mindset that puts the classroom community as the most powerful agent in learning. Where students use their experiences to connect with the content in order to learn with each other, from one another, and the community as a whole. How do we commit ourselves to this kind of pedagogy each day so that our classroom communities are thriving with students who know and understand that they are valued and their experiences are legitimate?

I often wonder what I would say to “me”  in a writing conference as the teacher after reading the book that I had written? I’m not sure what words I would say. One thing I know is that I would be reflecting on what I missed. I would be asking, what space in my classroom did I not allow for this child to feel free to write their true story? What kind of community do we have where students are not seeing themselves? I would be questioning and reflecting a lot.

My life experiences have taught me that as educators we have to pursue our profession with reckless abandon to do what’s right for children. Classroom communities start before students walk in the door. They are cultivated the moment the first child enters, and are fostered all year-long. What we do matters. How we listen to children matters. Honoring all community members matters. How will you create a classroom community for all students this year?