For Teachers, By a Teacher: A Crash Course in Personalization

Personalization is permeating our society at large, and it’s no wonder that this need has penetrated education. In fact, one might argue that personalization is of the highest need in education, where our largest priority is to help each individual student maximize his or her full potential.

But this isn’t an easy charge. Helping all students reach their individual potential is much more easily said than done. It’s more complicated than buying an app or finding new curriculum. Instead, the art of personalizing education requires a delicate touch coupled with a firm knowledge of pedagogy and classroom process.

So how do we as teachers do it? How do we achieve personalization in a way that is not only cognizant of individual student needs, but also efficient and scalable for large classrooms and school systems?

Understand Standards and How to Unpack Them

One of the underpinnings of personalization is scaffolding instruction. While each child’s path differs, educators have still learned a great deal about “best practices” and trends in learning. Unpacking standards, whether they be Common Core or otherwise, can help teachers build rubrics and learning progressions that incorporate best practices while making paths accessible to students as well.

One of the most difficult things for me to teach is rounding whole numbers to my upper elementary students. While it seems like a routine skill, in order for students to truly understand this skill conceptually, it’s necessary for them to master identifying place values, understand the relationship between place values, and have a rudimentary understanding of what “half” of something represents. By knowing each of these components, I can diagnose specific learning needs, create ability groupings, and even create rubrics that help students self-assess.


Leverage the Flipped Classroom

Homework was always a nuisance for me when I taught in public school. I felt like I was prescribing homework simply to appease parents, meanwhile wasting my students’ time and mine (especially when I had to grade it).

By flipping my classroom, I was suddenly able to break through the four walls of the classroom, create meaningful homework, maximize my time, and even involve parents. The best part about flipping was, when the kids came in the following day, I could very easily assess their understanding with an entry slip, immediately create groups, and instruct to each of these groups within minutes.

Master Formative Assessment and Documentation Practices

Of course, none of this would be possible without a firm understanding of formative assessment. Learning does not have a definite beginning and a finite end; instead, learning is process-oriented, and the only way we can truly scaffold instruction and meet students on a personal level is by documenting their work samples and using them as formative assessments in an on-going and dynamic spiral of instruction.

Let’s go back to the rounding example. I had a student this year, specifically, who struggled with number sense, and by watching her conquer rounding problems and documenting her mistakes, I was able to eventually identify that she had misconceptions with the place value system and how ones turns into tens, and how tens turn into hundreds. This information was invaluable in scaffolding instruction in later days.

By knowing our students in this way, and by constantly using formative assessment to know them better, we can personalize their education one day at a time.

Build a Culture of Autonomy and Agency in Staff and Students

The impetus for personalized learning comes from the assumption that all children are different. As a result, the process of personalization cannot be formulaic.

The major components of personalized learning are understanding student interests, assessing for granular misconceptions, and knowing students needs and preferences for learning. There are simply too many variables for there to be a formulaic approach. For some schools, this will be quite a change and a challenge for administrators and coaches alike. But managing this change doesn’t require coercion and rigid mandates; it requires trust, autonomy, and agency in both teachers and students.

By fostering environments where educators can be vulnerable learners, we empower them, not only to see themselves in the learning process, but to own their learning experience as teacher-learners and eventually transfer that both implicitly and explicitly onto students. This sort of personalization is neither ephemeral nor superficial; instead, it fosters a sense of purposeful inquiry where both teachers and students feel motivated to self-assess and self-correct for the purpose of self-improvement–not compliance.

Next Steps

As I said before, this isn’t an easy charge. You may be wondering where to start, and only you can provide yourself with that answer. Here’s what I recommend: Choose something that resides within your zone of proximal development as a teacher-learner, use your colleagues, and don’t be afraid to take risks. Your risks and the mistakes will be well worth the return!

This article was originally published on EdSurge on April 2, 2015.

Three-Dimensional Thinking

“Think of this as a path,” I said to my students.  “It’s here to help you see where to go.”

I was referring to a rubric that I created for our recent unit on geometry, architecture, and machines.  I had deconstructed each of the standards we’d be working on to scaffold the experience for them.  I find that rubrics, while linear, help ground my lessons, the students, and even myself, when things become complex and the purpose becomes unclear.  It gives us a common language, a place to which we can go back, and most importantly, a common vision of where we’re trying to go.  But I’ve started to think lately that maybe “vision” isn’t necessarily the right word; instead, perhaps it’s just the general direction in which we’re going instead of the actual destination itself.

This idea, though, of having direction without destination may be somewhat challenging for educators.  I know that, when I began as an educator, I fell into the trap of making my teaching too linear.  I made some grand assumptions, partially drawing upon my own experiences as a learner in elementary school, about the way teaching and learning should be.  I assumed the process was a straight line, with skills building upon subsequent skills.  This assumption wasn’t necessarily incorrect, as there were and will continue to be many times when a linear approach is helpful.

But there are also times when it isn’t.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with one of our external resource providers, who consults with us on students with learning differences. We ended up having a conversation about teaching, in general, and this very conundrum of the balance between linear and non-linear processes in teaching.  Specifically, she called these two seemingly opposing paradigms “linear” and “simultaneous processing,” and while I don’t believe it’s necessary to label teachers as one or the other, I do think it’s important to recognize the pieces of ourselves — and of our craft — that are linear and non-linear.

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Linearity is an essential part of what we do.  Knowing how skills build upon one another, and developing an understanding of how to deconstruct outcomes is essential when learning how to scaffold.  Further, being able to model sequence, both implicitly and explicitly, will not only teach students academic skills in reading and math, but it will also teach them the soft skills (i.e., executive functioning, planning, and perseverance).  However, confining students to unidirectional linearity may hinder creativity and problem-solving.

In fact, I sat in the Teachers’ College Workshop (@TCRWP) yesterday, pondering this linear/non-linear divide, while listening to our presenter speak about Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  She discussed, specifically, how Webb’s depth of knowledge, while parsed into four discrete levels, was anything but linear. But in a way, I still saw it as such.  I wondered how a child could reach a deep level of knowledge without understanding the shallow levels first.  But then I thought of some of my brightest thinkers, and how non-linear their thinking is.  And even though it may seem like they’re jumping levels, I don’t actually believe this is the case.  Instead, I wonder if it simply speaks to their demonstration of this depth of knowledge, and an inability to discretely demonstrate the lower levels of knowledge… even though they are there.  Perhaps that’s where simultaneous processing comes in.

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I imagine simultaneous processing somewhat like a web.  Clusters of dots come together, and lines begin to connect each of these dots, creating multiple pathways and corners within the web.  I find this especially helpful to think of when hoping students will construct knowledge on their own.  By giving students a linear process by which to acquire new knowledge, they lose resilience as well as the ability to think critically about process.  On the other hand, by taking a simultaneous approach — one where students are encouraged to uncover facts and make connections independently — students learn to be flexible, responsive, and adaptive.  As a result, kids learn that it’s not always going to turn out how they’ve expected and that they’ll have to change.

“It’s about collecting and connecting dots,” I always say, “not about just doing what your teacher told you to do.”

However, even within this simultaneous approach to research, teaching, and learning, we find elements of linearity and remnants of patterns formed over time, much like the synapses in our brain.  While our brains are also an interconnected web of dots, lines, angles, and vertices, this interconnected web would be impossible if not for the linear movements between synapses — if not for the fact that our synapses fire from point A to point B.

Leonardo_polyhedraThinking in 3D

But lately I’ve started to think, what might happen if we combine these two seemingly discrete ways of thinking?  Is it, in fact, possible to break free of this dichotomy and to actually identify both types of thinking within one setting or experience?

I think it might be, if we add a third dimension.

The first two types of thinking, when examined independently map most effectively in one- or two-dimensional spaces.  A line consists of only one dimension, while a web has both length and width, but perhaps by combining these two thinking modes, we create a third dimension of thinking that entails an intricate balance of both.  In this three-dimensional way of thinking, dots of knowledge create lines of understanding that form three-dimensional webs of synthesis, much like a human brain, with synapses linearly firing on a microscopic level to create volumes of knowledge and understanding macroscopically.

Reflections and Conclusions

We cannot confine ourselves to one paradigm of thinking.  Teaching, learning, and thinking exist in three-dimensional space, with sometimes very clear patterns that emerge, and other times, unclear puzzles that need to be solved.  By operating in this three-dimensional space we allow ourselves the structure and flexibility to be thoughtful when responding to student needs and helping to build a resilience in our students.  What’s most important, in my opinion, is that we find the times and places that individual students benefit from each of these ways of thinking, so that we can maximize each of them and, in turn, maximize student learning.

Lessons on Simplicity from the Reading and Writing Project

It’s really amazing how far I’ll go to learn about teaching reading.  

I’ve found myself halfway across the world, thousands of miles from my home in San Francisco to attend the Teachers’ College Reading and Writing Project (#TCRWP) Digital and Media Literacy Conference.  Attendees from over 30 countries have all convened in this spot to learn about one thing — reading and writing workshop in the context of modern day digital tools.


Looking out on Paris from Sacre Couer in Montmartre.

What strikes me about this first day, though, is not innovative apps or even the number of educators from such diverse arenas and perspectives.  Instead, what strikes me most about this day is the simplicity that underlies one of our most basic skills as humans and as learners, and that is our desire to communicate with one another.

In fact, as I was sitting and listening to Colleen Cruz (@colleen_cruz) speak about the core tenets of reader’s and writer’s workshop (as well as Brian Cambourne’s “Conditions of Learning”), I remembered something.  And perhaps it was something that I already knew.

Regardless, the thought intensified in my synapses and carved a message into my neuropathways.

We live in an educational era that’s hyper-concerned with products and accountability.  While it’s important to ensure products are being made, and while it’s important that teachers are held accountable for teaching children, so much of what we do cannot be captured and documented because so much of what we do is ephemeral.  Better yet, so many of the “products” that we should use to document learning are actually mementos of a process, instead of a final culminating project, summative assessment, or end-of-semester grade.

Even in my own path as an educator, some of the most profound moments of learning on this first day of the Digital and Media Literacy Institute have materialized through listening to others, conferring with myself and with my colleagues, and reflecting in an effort to self-select modifications to my practice, simply through the two-way feedback loops of which I’ve had the pleasure to be a part.

And so, on my first day in Paris, instead of traveling halfway across the world and learning something earth shattering, radical, and brand new, I’m reminded of the beautiful simplicity of teaching and that sometimes the best teaching comes from instinct, a strong culture, and just a little bit of faith in the process.

And it’s this process — not the products — of reading, writing, and learning that truly makes us better at what we do each day.

Willful Defiance, Secret Superpowers, and Changing the World

“This is not the forum for changing the world, Paul” my principal said to me from across her desk.

This remarkable phrase – referring to our very school – was the climax of a 25-minute shaming session, and the entire twenty-five minutes, my colleague’s and my faces stared directly into the disgruntled visage of our principal as she sat across from us. Just a half hour prior, we had been sitting in one of our teammate’s classrooms, celebrating her soon-to-be nuptials with a smorgasbord of teacher breakfast goodies, filled with pastries, salty breakfast food, and even some sparkling cider! But the bubbles were popped, the celebration was dimmed, and the joy disrupted as my principal entered.

“Can I see the two of you in my office?” she gestured towards me and my colleague.

We knew what she wanted. The night before, we had sent out an e-mail, telling parents that we’d be hosting a dialogue about Illinois’ newly passed same-sex marriage law, in an effort to not only create an inclusive environment, but also to help breed tolerance and empathy in the face of what could potentially be a significant change for our fifth-grade students.

We walked quietly down to the office, whereupon the door closed, and we were harshly reprimanded for poor decision-making and inappropriate conduct – merely for mentioning to parents that we’d be hosting a discussion. Our e-mail, as it should have, adhered to all best practices of social justice education: a lack of educator bias, third party materials that presented both sides of the argument, and the curricular relevance of the discussion, relating to our yearly arc of empathy, in addition to Common Core Standards surrounding informational text, synthesizing information, and forming arguments using facts and primary sources.

“I’m so incredibly disappointed in the both of you,” she continued, showering scores of shame down upon us.

“Well, I’ve never been prouder of myself,” my colleague replied. I smiled, honored to have such an incredible colleague and friend by my side.

She turned to me, “And Paul, you should know that the classroom is not the place for personal agendas.”

She was, of course, referring to the fact that I was the gay teacher in the room – the one who would so selfishly advocate for his own minority group, similar to how a black teacher or a female teacher might bring about discussions about race or gender equality. My heart sank, my shoulders drooped, and I suddenly began to feel defeated, for if the leader of my school was not ready to openly and warmly welcome the gay community into the school, how would I ever find my place in the school? But just a moment later, my self-pity was cleansed when the conversation climaxed with the following statement.

IMG_2150“This is not the forum for changing the world, Paul.”

Adrenaline pulsed through my veins, and my willful defiance nearly exploded out of me. I crossed my right leg over my left knee indignantly, held on to it, and nodded my head quizzically, in mere disbelief at the utterance that just left my principal’s mouth, for this was – and still is – exactly the reason that I teach. I teach because I can change the world… one student at a time.

As teachers, our secret superpower – our superhuman strength – is the ability to subtly change the world each and every day; and not through selfish motives, but with the intent of empowering our students and helping them find pieces of themselves they never knew existed. Through our actions, through our words, and by sharing our authenticity, we harness this invisible power that helps shape our students, and more importantly, that helps them to shape themselves.

I’ll admit, after this encounter with my principal, I sincerely contemplated leaving teaching altogether. I began to wonder how I would continue teaching under such overwhelming personal and ethical dissonance. But each and every day, I’d reenter my classroom, leaving my own drama and convictions at the door, and showing up to the bright faces that I loved so dearly.

They were the reason I was here, and they were the reason I’d keep coming.

What’s more, over time, I began to realize that by staying, I was doing exactly the opposite of what my principal said I couldn’t do. I was changing the world. Perhaps I wasn’t able to do the lesson my colleague and I originally intended, and perhaps my community was still hidden in my students’ periphery, but by staying, by being me, and by finding other ways to share my identity and share of myself, I was able to lead by example and show my students just what I had originally intended – that it’s not necessarily about who you love; instead, it’s about how you show your love.

Ironically, when we left the office that day, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, we actually had already done something to change the world. While my perturbed principal didn’t quite see it this way, we started a conversation, and we brought the issue into the limelight in this wholesome, suburban Chicago district. It showed me that I — and that all teachers — can change the world each and every day, and it doesn’t even have to be directly in front of my students.

While I was mortified at the time, I now hold a deep appreciation for my principal. I appreciate her, for she gave me an opportunity to hold onto my morals and to figure out who I was and what I was really doing in this big and scary world. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would have found my true superpower, and I don’t think I would have ever realized just how much our small and seemingly insignificant actions have ripple effects and become infinite.

And I suppose, at the end of the day, it’s what keeps me coming back for more.


The Importance of Instinct

I find that I do some of my best thinking early in the morning. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s something about quiet, damp mornings that gets my mind moving, even when the rest of my body is not.  Perhaps it’s the hope of a new day, or maybe it’s the revitalizing feeling I get when I see the morning sun peek out over the hills.

Regardless, I’ve always been one to get to school early, and I think I’ll attribute it most to my struggle with decision-making.  I find that, in my creative process, my mind doesn’t think in a linear fashion. I spend a lot of time thinking deeply about the choices I’m going to make as an educator, simultaneously processing the outcomes of every decision I could make, visualizing their interconnectedness in my mind.  I want to choose just the right provocation — just the right stimulus for learning.  But there comes a point when we can no longer think so deeply about what we’re giving our kids.  And while I’d like to say it’s because I’m thinking and rethinking and redesigning each and every lesson, there’s a much simpler reason:

It’s because the kids will be here in the morning, ready or not, and I need to be ready for them.

What’s interesting, though, is that some of my greatest learning experiences have arisen from this last-minute decision-making, whether it’s the decision to scrap the lesson I had planned out for days, or whether it’s the last-minute decisions I’ve made to subtly alter a lesson to be just the right fit for my students on that given day.  Regardless, this last-minute decision-making is something that all teachers must be prepared to do; we must know how to rely on our instincts in these moments.

It wasn’t until a few days ago, when speaking with a colleague, that I realized the importance of this teacher instinct.  We sat across from each other talking about the essentials of teaching and what it meant to be an effective teacher, especially in the midst of this new system in which we had found ourselves — reimagining education each and every day.  My colleague specifically mentioned the instinct required to teach, especially in a place with so many variables.  And while I didn’t disagree with her statement, I couldn’t help but question why I had not thought more deeply about this instinct before.

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Found poetry wasn’t working for one of my students the other day. My instinct guided me, and he ended feeling successful!

But then it all started to make sense.

Yes, we can read books, and yes, we can model our teaching after those whose methodology has stood the test of time. But it would seem that all of this is done in vain should we not trust ourselves and our instincts to know our students and the complementary sequence of learning experiences we’ve planned for them.  In a way, our instincts connect us to who we are as human beings, and our alignment to who we are as human beings determines our authenticity.  In essence, should we avoid listening to our instincts, then we avoid being the most authentic versions of ourselves we can be.

I lost that a bit this year — this ability to adhere to my instincts; and for a variety of reasons, from the stress of geographical displacement to the anxiety that comes from wondering whether or not those around me would understand me and my instincts.

What I’ve learned, you ask? I’ve learned that no one person’s instincts are right.  Likewise, I’ve learned that no one person’s instincts are wrong.  For in the moment, when we’re with the kids, our instincts guide us to do exactly what we should do in that moment.  And once our instincts guide us there, we’ve made an irrevocable mark.

But what if our instincts guide us down the wrong path?  What if our instincts cause us to make a mistake?

The truth is, it doesn’t quite matter, because when all is said and done, those irrevocable marks will only continue to shape and refine our instincts so that every day, when we walk in our classrooms, we are the best versions of our teacher selves —

Better than we ever imagined we could be.

Taking the Pain out of Pre-Assessment

I have to say: it was a great first day back.

The first day back from spring break is routinely lethargic. The kids come back in, hungover from late night binges of TV and sugary snacks, still half-asleep as they sit in class, trying to participate, but oftentimes, unable to combat their residual fatigue. And so, when we return from breaks, I find it best to ease into things, to not push them too hard, and to give them some time to get back into the swing of things.  In fact, I always think that the first day back is a great time for a pre-assessment.

While it may sound kind of silly, a pre-assessment is an invaluable tool. Not only does it provide the kids a chance to showcase what they already know, but it provides you with some great information on where to take you upcoming sequence of lessons. And best of all, it’s great evidence of growth later on.

I know what you may be thinking: starting school with a pre-assessment is no way to get the kids excited about an upcoming unit.  And you’re right.  Many pre-assessments can be disengaging, off-putting, and potentially damaging to building momentum for a unit.

But not if you do them right.

Pre-assessment doesn’t have to be painful. It doesn’t have to be a mundane, modified copy of your post-test.  Instead, a pre-assessment can be an exciting way to get kids to ask questions, make inferences, and even learn something by talking themselves through what they already know.  Try some of these tricks to make your pre-assessments a little more engaging, meanwhile giving you some actionable data!

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Our heat map!

1. Have them create their own thinking map.

One of the biggest mistakes a teacher can make when conducting a pre-assessment is creating a class-wide K-W-L chart.  While there is value in discussing what you think you know and what you wonder, creating a class-wide view of this before the kids have gotten a chance to think on their own is impersonal and even invalidating for many students.  Instead, give them the opportunity to create their own first.  It’ll give you information, not only on what they know, but on how readily they can recall information on a topic.

2. Allow them to advocate for their own knowledge.

Today, I actually had the kids show what they knew by creating a heat map, of sorts, on our wall.  I posted a bunch of terms related to literary and poetic devices, asking them to star, check, or question words depending on their level of knowledge.  It gave me some great informal data about class-wide understandings (as well as individual student understandings) and served as a vocabulary bank for student goal-setting and for students’ personal thinking maps.

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A student assesses her current understanding using the rubrics.

3. Let them interact with your rubrics.  

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that rubrics are useless when the kids don’t know how to use them.  Part of today’s pre-assessment in math was simply getting to know the rubric.  By allowing them to read the rubrics on their own (and rate themselves in the process), I was able to gauge very easily what they were coming to the table with.  I was even a bit surprised with just how honest they were.  There was neither shame nor anxiety; just a positive attitude about what was to come.

4. Take a second to re-explain the learning process to them.

“It’s like a path,” I said. “Without the path through the wide open field, it’s a lot harder to find your way across.  Think of the rubric like that.”

I find that talking through the process of using a learning tool like a rubric is extremely supportive of the learning process, and helps them see that assessment tools are only there to support them, not lock them down.

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Today, as part of our geometry walk, students were able to take pictures of various shapes and figures, and explain their findings using Educreations.

5. Allow them to show their understanding in a way that’s comfortable for them.

A lot of kids are more comfortable showing and telling than they are writing and testing.  Try having them make videos to show what they know.  It makes for a calm learning environment and a low-stakes method of ascertaining some excellent information on your students’ prerequisite knowledge.

Lessons Learned

Above all else, it’s important to remember that assessment is there to provide information, not just to make kids aware of their misconceptions.  While an understanding of one’s mistakes paves the way for meaningful reflection, thoughtfully crafted assessment provides information to the teacher, actionable steps for the students, and may even teach them something about the content in the process!  That’s certainly what happened today!

Is Discrimination Ever Okay?

I think I’ve become a bit spoiled living in San Francisco.  Not just because of the sun, the warmth, and the beauty that surrounds me every day in this city, and not just because of the incredible job I have, placing me at the forefront of change in education…

But mostly because, more than anywhere else in the country, it’s okay to be gay here.

I became especially aware of this a couple of weeks ago while in our nation’s capital.  I was there for the National Board Conference, where I spent two days collaborating around teaching and learning.  In my spare time, I walked the streets, saw the sites, and reflected on the grand amount of history that the city holds in its palms.  I even was able to stand in the very spot that Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

photo (5)I was also lucky enough to have my boyfriend accompany me, so that we could spend our afternoons and evenings together, enjoying the scenery and learning together about the hidden pieces of history that Washington D.C. has to offer.  One evening, we were walking by the White House, making jokes about jumping the fence, complementary arms wrapped around each other’s backs, slowly gliding along the pavement and breathing in the crisp, early-spring air.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a school group, one of many I saw throughout the weekend.  This group, however, was different — a group of boys, most likely middle-school aged.

Upon first glance, I could have sworn that I saw them staring at us and laughing.  Initially I ignored it, but I couldn’t help notice them continuing to stare, gesture, and laugh in our direction.  I was tempted to smile and wave, I was tempted to engage with them, but I didn’t.  I just let it go.  Why?  Partially out of fear, and partially wanting to honor their ignorance, knowing that some day they might understand.

But now, after two weeks have passed, it still bothers me that I did nothing, especially in light of recent events in Indiana. I was blown away by Senator Pence’s inability to answer the simple question: “Is discrimination against homosexuals okay?” and it helped me to remember that activism is the best shot we have at truly making a change.  Pacifism only perpetuates that which we feel we cannot control.  All of it — the new Indiana law and the ignorant middle schoolers — reminded me of what it felt like to be a teacher in Chicago: to sit and listen to my principal and superintendent ban conversations about same-sex couples in the school, and to have my principal question my ability to select books for my own classroom after merely suggesting we find more LGBT picture books to include in our classrooms.

The bottom line is fear, discrimination, and hate are still alive and thriving in our country.  

And perhaps because the culture in San Francisco is so liberal, I’ve become less akin to the struggles that LGBT individuals and couples are still fighting all over the country.  It makes me wish I would have done something two weeks ago, if not for me, for the gay individuals and couples in D.C. who have to see those kids walk their streets all the time.  Better yet, it made me realize the importance of opening up these conversations about LGBT acceptance at a young age.

Discrimination comes from ignorance, and ignorance comes from fear.  By opening up the conversations early — whether it’s in school or not — we give our kids a chance to be knowledgeable, develop their own opinions, and respond accordingly.  We are all teachers, through our words and through our actions — and by trade or otherwise.  We have a responsibility to stop heckling and hate in its tracks, especially when it’s coming from kids.

Because, Senator Pence, discrimination is never okay.  Never.