On Writing

District Writing Coach Mary Asgill

October 11, 2020: On Writing Headlines and Being Keepers of the Light for Our Children

  • Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we are to reach peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children; and if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have to struggle; we won’t have to pass fruitless idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which consciously or unconsciously the whole world is hungering.”  

    And what if Gandhi is wrong and the whole world is not hungering for peace and love, and if the headlines about COVID-19 and racism and political incivility bring darkness, which is the opposite of peace and love, what do we tell the children? What do we do when we must teach when the headlines dim the lights in our eyes? 

    When dark headlines hover, I open the Sunshine File on my iPhone. That’s where years of pictures and videos of my and my colleagues’ smiling, laughing, and beautiful little ones and their stories live. 

    It is where one-year-old Micah dances in his living room and plays the drums and where Dillynn Grace sits in her high chair and very clearly rejects broccoli and where Sammy wears her self-selected “proper” attire for her first day of kindergarten. It is where the stories of Ames and Lincoln and Lyla and Zephyr and so many others live in perfect peace and love. It is the place in my phone that reminds me to look for the light before I look into the eyes of the children. Dark headlines or not - we are responsible for the children’s light.

    James Baldwin said, “for these are all of our children; we all will either profit by or pay for what they become.” 

    And if Baldwin is right and we will reap what we sow with regard to how we educate the children and how we make them feel - whether they make good headlines or bad ones, whether they develop cures for pandemics, racism, and political incivility, or exacerbate these problems, we are responsible for keeping the light on in the spirits of the children we educate.

    What happens when we treat our most vulnerable citizens as if they are not seeing the headlines? What happens when the children tell us and show us, they are hurting as a result of the headlines and we can’t hear them? What happens when we don’t help them critically think their way through the headlines that we know they are seeing and hearing?

    These have been my struggles each time the headlines dimmed the lights in my eyes, and I found it hard to put on my ‘peace-and-love-face” when I looked at my 11th or 6th graders through their screens. I wondered if these children who are learning in the midst of today’s headlines would make us profit or make us pay for what they will become. 

    All I could do was try my best to craft writing lessons in breakout sessions based on the promise of Gandhi’s peace and love. So, with my Sunshine File and Gandhi and Baldwin’s reminders solidly in tow, I tried to teach 6th graders how to write their own headlines so that they could analyze and process the headlines in the news.

    Our tools: Children’s books, “Craig of the Creek” cartoon excerpts, books read aloud on YouTube, Google’s Jamboard and lots and lots of discussion.

    Our discussions: always, always challenged them to write their own questions - as fast as they could - as many as they could; the team with the most questions won second place; the team with the best questions one first. 

    What did they win? They got to pick the sign-off hand signal of the day. We would sign-off with Mr. Spock's Vulcan hand greeting; wavy finger hands; flea claps, thumb waves….or whatever silliness the kids and I could invent to bring the light.

    Our discussions about humanity and changing mindsets in order to change headlines were fruitful as YouTube teachers read these children’s books aloud:  

    • The Dot, by Peter Reynolds
    • Terrible Things and Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
    • The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
    • Teach Us Your Name by Huda Essa
    • “My Name” chapter of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
    • And almost any two-minute excerpt of the cartoon, “Craig of the Creek” on YouTube

    We started small. We wrote our names as headlines. Since these weren’t my “official students,” as I was only the breakout room teacher, I had some leeway in getting to know them. Huda Essa, the author of Teach Us Your Name read us her book from her YouTube channel. 

    Students then researched their names based on https://www.names.org/ or their parent/guardian interviews and their feelings about their names. They then wrote one-sentence headlines for their names.

    What did their names mean based on their research and interviews with their parents and guardians? What were the background stories of their names? What did they think about their names and why? We posted their writing to Jamboard and discussed them, using ALL of the Jamboard tools: post-it notes, pen, text, eraser, highlighter, background paper, and pointer. 

    Emilio: “Keep Calm and Let Emilio Handle It” 
    Xiomara: “The “I” means Independent and “R” means Really Good Friend.”
    Thaddeus (aka Tay): “Tay Gonna Be Alright” 

    We read children’s books to find and discuss topics and themes similar to current headlines and then wrote one-sentence summaries. We played the music they liked (ones we found the clean versions of) and used them to guide discussions about whether words or beats mattered more and why? We talked about food and Fortnite and finding solutions for the situations the kids of “Craig of the Creek” found themselves entangled in.

    In one episode, Craig and his friends (all 5th graders) go to the Creek Daycare to drop off Craig’s little sister, Jessica. They find themselves “stuck” babysitting when Angel, the 5th grade daycare provider, unexpectedly has to leave to take another child home because she has poison ivy. After Angel leaves, the daycare becomes chaotic and the little ones try to leave. Craig tries to calm the children by playing a game of peek-a-boo, but his little sister has a better plan that works more effectively.

    DeAndre: “Jessica Smart, Craig Dumb”
    Jo’an: “Little Sister is Big Sister”
    Thaddeus (Tay): “Craig Ain’t All That”

    The headline writing need not be exceptional. The thinking needs to be. As I said to one administrator, our job is not to teach students what to think but how to think. We must unpack thinking in the least threatening ways, using the least threatening tools - so that we always bring light to challenging headlines. 

    Children’s books and cartoons can take center stage in this as we help children deconstruct the messages in the books with these questions.

    Is the message in the Children’s book or cartoon some or all of these?

    • Clear? Accurate (for the world where the story resides), Precise? Relevant? Significant? Logical (for the world where the story resides), Complete? Fair?, Empathetic?...and does it have enough depth and breadth to look at the issue from multiple perspectives?

    These questions are the same ones we can use to deconstruct and discuss news. We just have to remember to find our own type of Sunshine File and take heed of Gandhi and Baldwin before we turn on our screens.

    The children are watching and listening to the headlines no matter how much we think we’re shielding them. And using children’s books and cartoons to discuss headlines is a softer, gentler way to keep the lights on in their eyes - and in ours.


On Writing