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Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

Visible Thinking & Vocabulary: When a Web is More Than a Web


When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
                                                                          -John Muir

I sat in my 8:00 a.m. undergrad class; let's call it "Teaching 101." It was Monday morning, and after a weekend of vigorous and social undergrad activities, I was near catatonic. My roommates and I were watching the thread of saliva that dangled precariously from the professor's top lip. We discussed his spit thread weekly, and we felt sorry for the poor souls who came late to class and had to sit in the front row. At some point, that thread was liable to fly, and we were entertaining ourselves by placing bets on who it would land on when it did. 

Our professor was an animated speaker. The first week of lecture, I thought, "This won't be too bad. At least he's putting some feeling into it." But by the third week, we realized that his voice and gesticulations were his monotone. Finally, the spit thread broke and flew onto the desk of one of the sorority sister Bobsy Twins. Margot passed me a dollar, while Amy high-fived me. That's when I heard the words, "All learning is about making connections. The brain learns only when there's prior learning to hook the new learning onto...this is on the test. Are you writing this down?"

Flash forward 10 years. I'm sitting in a week-long Eric Jensen workshop on brain-based learning. It's in San Diego. I'm cooped up inside, while outside the sun is shining, the ocean breeze is warm, and the fish taco truck is parked on the corner. And then I hear, "The brain likes connections. It thrives on them."


Most spiders eat and remake their webs every night.
                                                                                              -Alice Oswald

The reason these learning memories have stuck with me is because my brain is really geared at looking for patterns and connections. It's the first thing I do when I'm learning something new, and if I can't make those connections or see patterns, I struggle. Webbing has been one of my favorite strategies for as long as I can remember. In fact, I sometimes write my lesson plans in the form of a web!


Oooooh, Ms. Willis! We could go on and on and on with this web!
                                                                                         -Fifth Grade Student

I've been working with visible thinking routines for the past three years. I have my favorite stand-bys, but this past week, I wanted to try something new. I was teaching a lesson to introduce a new tier 2 vocabulary word and decided that I'd give Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate a try. The word we were exploring was accurate. We had already looked at it in context and dug around in a trusty dictionary for the standard definitions. Here's the thinking routine, in a nutshell:

1. Select a topic, concept or issue for which you want to map your understanding. In our case, we chose the word accurate.

2. Generate a list of ideas and initial thoughts that come to mind when you think about your topic. 

My students came up with these words:
Test, answer, exam, information, question, correct, perfect, precise, exact, accuracy, on point, sensational, aim, close, almost.

3. Sort your ideas according to how central or tangential they are. Place central ideas near the center and ideas not as related toward the outside of the web.

For me, this was the coolest part of the webbing process. It was fascinating to hear my students debate how the words were related to the vocabulary word. They created a category of words that addressed times for when accuracy would be important.



4. Now connect your ideas by drawing connecting lines between the ideas that have something in common. Explain/write a short sentence about how the ideas are connected.

Since this was our first attempt at this routine, we did this orally. Again, students debated with each other, and I reminded them to use the discourse sentence stems we had learned earlier in the school year. 

5. Finally, we elaborated on any of the ideas/thoughts they had by adding new ideas to our web that expanded their initial thoughts about the word accurate.

One thing that the kids talked about at this point was how we often use accurate to describe things that are close to being correct. Yet, when we looked at the actual definition, it refers to something that is exact. At this point, our web also grew to include scenarios and circumstances in which they would come across the word.

This thinking routine blew up our understanding of our vocabulary word. The kiddos' depth of thinking was exciting to witness. In addition, engagement was through the roof. Everyone was involved in the conversations. 

What would I do differently next time? I always ask myself that after trying a new teaching approach. Next time, I'll spend more time on the "Elaborate" part of the routine. By doing so, I think their thinking will deepen even more. My approach to concept webbing has changed because of this thinking routine, and I can't wait to try it again!

P.S. If you're interested in finding out more about teaching tier 2 vocabulary or visible thinking routines and strategies, check out these resources! They'll rock your classroom world!

P.SSSSSSSS. You can read more about teaching tier 2 vocabulary HERE!








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Interactive, Mentor & Read Aloud? OH MY! Choosing Your Next Read Aloud


I swung my knee-socked legs back and forth as I slumped in my seat. My head rested on my desk top. I might've been rocking my new Dorothy Hamill haircut, but Mrs. White's not-so-rousing rendition of Little House in the Big Woods was kicking my butt. I stifled a yawn and tried to use my newly acquired American Sign Language skills to message my best friend, Nicki. I couldn't get her attention, so I decided to use the bathroom pass instead. The after lunch read aloud always had this effect on me...Snoozeville.

Back in the day, and I know I'm dating myself, terms like interactive read aloud and mentor text didn't exist. The place of any read aloud was after lunch and recess. As a teacher's kid, I had the inside scoop on this practice. My mom used to say it was to "calm the troops." It did just that, probably better than any valium or tranquilizer a doctor could prescribe. 

Every teacher knows the power of a good book. But how do you wade through the terms used to describe them? They seem to be interchangeable, but are they really? And how do you choose the right book for the job? Sometimes, it can feel like you're Dorothy as she navigates the witch's forest..."LIONS AND TIGERS AND BEARS, OH MY!"

Read alouds hold an undisputed place in the reader's workshop. Years and years of research points to their effectiveness and power. One thing I've learned over the years is to model a balanced reading diet for my students. Your read aloud is the perfect time for this. Let me ask you a question. When was the last time you read a nonfiction book aloud to your kiddos? Have you recently read a poetry book aloud to them, outside of National Poetry Month? It's important to talk to your students about their reading diets. Are they reading around the genre wheel? Are you reading around the genre wheel in your classroom read alouds? 


So what in tarnation is an interactive read aloud? It wasn't my fourth grade experience, I can assure you. Interactive read alouds are the basis of my reader's workshop. When I read aloud to my students, I frequently stop and ask them about their thinking. I might share my own thinking via a think aloud. I do this to make my comprehension processes transparent for them. My students may be sketching or webbing in their reader's notebooks while I read. We turn and talk A TON. I teach them discourse sentence stems. We use them every day. 

The interactive read aloud is usually separate from my mini-lesson. However, it feeds "the beast." When it's time for my mini-lesson, I will return to the excerpts from the interactive read aloud to teach reading strategies and skills. 


What are mentor texts? My read alouds become mentor texts when I use passages from them to teach reading or writing skills in my mini-lessons or guided reading/ strategy groups. For example, when I'm teaching about internal characterization, I will pull  excerpts from Tuck Everlasting where Natalie Babbitt reveals Jesse, Miles, and Tuck's differing perspectives on immortality. The text becomes our teacher, and we examine how the author presents different perspectives. 

When I'm teaching about cause and effect text structures, I pull excerpts from the nonfiction book we read to help students understand the structures, cue words, and organization of that text type. Any text can become a mentor text. If you keep your interactive read alouds close to you throughout the year, you can return to them again and again when you teach reading skills and strategies. The best part of this approach is that your kids will know those books inside and out, so you'll need to prep them less when teaching your lessons. 

What's everyone doing for a read aloud? I need a new read aloud!
This leads me to my soapbox. Forgive me while I step onto it. Read alouds are potentially powerful. Interactive read alouds can rock your teacher world. Mentor texts can have earth-shattering impact. Seriously. That means that we need to be thoughtful about our choices. Don't throw away your instructional opportunities by following the Disney train to another book that has a movie. I get why we do this as teachers. I really do. And it's okay to do this, IF the book you're choosing fits your instructional purposes. Be clear about your purpose. If your purpose is to simply entertain, then jump on the bandwagon and choose the latest and greatest published book. But if your purpose is to elevate your students' reading lives, then be thoughtful about what you choose to share with them. Ask for suggestions, but ask with purpose:
What's everyone doing for a read aloud? Anyone reading something that would be great for teaching characterization?
(End of sermon.)

To help you through the witch's wood, I've created a starting point for you. If you teach grades 4, 5, or 6, this freebie is for you. It's my featured freebie this month. It's a five page list of picture books and novels for teaching synthesizing, inferencing, theme, characterization, and plot structure and conflict. You can snag it below by clicking on the picture. 

If you're interested in reading more about reader's workshop, you should give THIS a read!

This month, I've teamed up with some fabulous teacher bloggers. You won't want to miss out on their ideas and resources. Visit them below!



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