Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

When PIGS Fly!

Last Wednesday, I sat at my desk during my lunch hour making a list.  This is a strategy my mom, who had also been a teacher, taught me to do when I feel overwhelmed with teaching life.  So in between dabbing my broccoli florets in my hummus and choking down my carrot sticks, I made my list.  Overwhelmed doesn't adequately describe how I was feeling.  I began by listing five things at the top of my list that I had already accomplished.  

You do this.  Admit it.  I do this. I am a goal-setting, need-to-feel-a-sense-of-accomplishment list maker.  I add things that I have already done to lists just so I can check them off.  I know it's not a logical thing to do, but I've never bragged about my logic.  Some people over-drink, over-eat, or over-exercise to cope with stress.  I make lists so I can check things off.  This is how I cope. And then, because I am a classic over-achiever, I tell myself that if I accomplish half of what I list, I'm way far ahead of the game. Last Wednesday was no different.  And at the top of my list, I had written "P.I.G."  

When PIGS Fly
What is "P.I.G?"  P.I.G.  stands for "Pretty Important Goal."  It's the term my school district and school use to identify the year-long goal focus for each grade level.  I did feel a sense of accomplishment that this particular item was checked off on my list.  
This year at my school, we are focusing our efforts on reading.  Michigan recently passes a retention law for third graders, and this ups the ante for teachers and students.  There's a desperateness in the air. My fifth grade team began by looking at our Fountas & Pinnell data.  As usual, our students show a need for more advanced comprehension strategies in the "Beyond the Text" and "About the Text" comprehension areas.  After much dialogue and angst about how to best attack this goal, we came up with the following:

Rationale: Students develop advanced reading comprehension when they make connections, critique, and analyze text and their own thinking.

Goal: Students will achieve a grade level average of 80% on a biweekly basis, in reading comprehension, using the 4C's thinking routine in guided reading and strategy groups.

4 Cs: A Rock Star Routine
What is a "4C" routine, you ask?  My school is on its way to becoming a "Cultures of Thinking" organization.  My colleagues and I were looking for an easy peasy way to strengthen our students' ability to infer, make connections, analyze and critique.  This thinking routine popped out at us because  it requires students to do the type of thinking represented by "Beyond the Text" and "About the Text" reading comprehension.
  • The first C stands for Connection.  What connections can you make?
  • The second C stands for Challenge.  What ideas can you challenge?
  • The third C stands for Concepts. What are THE important ideas here?
  • The final C stands for Change. What changes occurred in your thinking?
After playing with it in our own practice, we found that this routine works well with fiction and nonfiction.  For example, let's say that I'm working with a guided reading group that is reading Tuck Everlasting. We might begin by focusing on a chapter and talking about the connections we have to Winnie, describing times when we have experienced frustration, feeling trapped or suffocated by a situation.  We take it a step further in that chapter and challenge some of the decisions that Winnie has made in that particular chapter, maybe even examining what we might have done in her place.  

We would discuss important themes or ideas about life from the chapter.  And finally, how our thinking about Winnie and/or her situation has changed due to the chapter we're discussing.  

Now, apply the same thinking routine to a nonfiction book about soccer.  What connections can you make to the topic?  What prior knowledge might you have?  Is the topic an important one for you?  We could follow that with challenging the writing style or thinking of the author. Did he or she slant the text to portray a certain viewpoint?  Is the depiction of soccer accurate?  What are THE important ideas about soccer?  How do you know they're important?  And finally, what changes in your understanding of soccer occurred because you read this text?

My fifth grade team decided to use this routine as a teaching tool and formative assessment, on a biweekly basis, with each of our guided reading groups.  On the formative assessment, we give a point for each of the C's and find our grade level average, which we track with our students.  Our expectation is that we will see an increase in our students' ability to use more complex reading comprehension skills on our benchmark Fountas & Pinnell assessments.  Just in the teaching alone, we've seen some changes.  In fifth grade, our P.I.G.S. do fly!

To read more about visible thinking strategies you might try this website (click on the pig!):

You can also give some of these thinking routines a whirl by trying them out below.  Not only are they shaking  up our reading comprehension, but our writing skills are growing by leaps and bounds with these routines!   

                     Until next time, 
                             teach on, my friends!


Teacher Leadership: Mama NEVER Said There'd Be Days Like This

There's this picture book with which I bet almost all elementary teachers are familiar: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  Raise your hand if you know this book.  For those of you who aren't, it's a story about a tree that gives everything it has to a boy that depends on it.  When the boy is young, the tree provides a play space. When the boy is older, it provides shade.  When the boy becomes a man, the tree provides the ultimate sacrifice...its wood for a house for the boy turned man. When the boy is an old man, it provides a place to sit...its stump. Teachers everywhere love this story.  It is THE ultimate story about self-sacrifice and giving. 

Come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy. 
                                                                                    ---Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree

Indulge me for just a moment.  What if teachers adore this story because it is a noble parable and  metaphor for teachers and public education?  I don't know about you, but lately, I feel like Silverstein's giving tree. 

I wish that I could give you something, but I have nothing left...I am just an old stump.
                                                                                      ---Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree

Teacher Leadership
Teacher Leadership has been a buzz word in education for the last 10 years or so. But, what is teacher leadership, really?  I asked some colleagues of mine in West Virginia, Arizona, Massachusetts and Michigan.  Here's a snapshot of the varying definitions:

  • Teacher leadership is just code for, "We have something else we want you to tackle, and we'll call you a leader while you do it."
  • Teacher leadership is leading professional development for your school district.
  • Teacher leadership is sitting on school improvement committees.
  • Teacher leadership means doing more work for free.
  • Teacher leadership means implementing district initiatives first, before everyone else tries them.
  • In my district, teacher leadership is synonymous with  saying, "Yes."
  • Teacher leadership is engaging in professional dialogue about best practices.
  • Teacher leaders don't have personal lives.
It was interesting to hear the variety of responses from friends and colleagues, some positive, some negative. 

The whole concept of teacher leadership has been nagging at me over the last month.  Why? I identify myself as a leader.  In current and past districts I've worked for, I think I've been viewed as such.  But what does that mean? 

Recently, I sat in a meeting and listened to an initiative being rolled out.  While I understand the push behind the initiative, I whole-heartedly disagree with how it has been designed.  Everything in me screams, "This is wrong. This is wrong for kids. This is NOT best-practice. Many aspects of this are in direct opposition with what we know about how kids learn."  I was not alone in my beliefs, not by a long shot.  Yet, I was the only one who spoke up.  I spoke up because I feel the need to be respected as a professional, and I feel the need to protect my practice and my students.  In the days that followed this meeting, people came out of the wood work to thank me for saying something, to thank me for "sticking up for us."

Leadership is Lonely
Leadership is lonely.  That has been my experience over 24 years of teaching.  I understand why teachers don't speak up.  I understand fear of reprisals, bullying, exhaustion, and the disempowerment of our profession. I even understand the apathy that comes from feeling like we don't have a voice anymore. I'm not going to lie. I cried that day, on my way home from school.  I cried because I'm working as hard as I can. I cried because my colleagues feel so defeated, they don't have the courage to stand up and say, "Wait a minute! This needs more discussion." I cried because I was scared and nervous to be the only public voice objecting.   I cried because I'm losing faith that anyone is really listening or trying to understand. 

I recently facilitated professional development about Cultures of Thinking: The Eight Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools by Ron Ritchart. I had an epiphany while preparing and reading for my workshop.  Ritchart defines culture as a group of people telling a common story.  If we're part of a culture, that means we influence the story.  We need to reclaim our voices.  Because they matter.  Because we ARE part of the culture. Because it is IMPERATIVE for our well-being as professionals and for the well-being of our students. 

How can we demand and expect others treat us with respect when we don't even treat ourselves with respect? 

In an abusive spousal relationship, often the first step to liberation and safety is to say, "Enough."

If we don't treat ourselves with the respect professionals deserve, then we will not be respected.

The Giving Tree Phenomena
This week in the state of Michigan, our state government has decided to retain all third graders who do not pass the state's reading benchmark.  They did this in the face of research and data that proves that retention is detrimental to students. They do not care about educators or the children we teach

This week in the state of Michigan, legislators have begun plans to dismantle our pension system, in a way that may cause the whole thing to implode  ( ).

Teachers are STILL waiting for the return of the 3% taken from us, illegally. Fire and police have had theirs returned to them.  But Michigan's governor is appealing AGAIN ( ).

And on a national stage, this headline has been making its rounds... "FACT: Donald Trump's Education Plan Would Mass-Fire Teachers And DECIMATE Pell Grants" ( ).

I could go on and on.  We have seen an onslaught of scary legislation and attacks on public education and educators.  One day a year, teachers are honored with coffee mugs and Facebook memes, but the other 364 days a year are a different story.  We can all be Wonder Woman or Superman...we can be giving trees.  It's true, being an educator requires a degree of self-sacrifice.  However, should we really think so poorly of ourselves that we don't deserve livable wages, a solvent pension system, or adequate resources with which to teach our kids?  Should we really zip our lips when educational policy and funding promises to educationally maim our students? 

Does being a teacher leader really mean saying "Yes" at all costs or zipping our lips when things aren't right? 

This is what has been burning in  my brain over the last month. I implore you, if you're a Michigan teacher, use the link below to speak up and stand up to your representative, over and over again until you are heard.  If you're not in Michigan, I implore you to speak up in your culture.  Reclaim your voice.  We can't afford to be passive or apathetic any longer.

                                                                                   Until next time, teach on.

Find your Michigan representative here.

To read more thought-provoking posts from other educators around the country, check out the links below.


Ten Biographies, One Word, One Powerful Beginning

I took a month off from my online life to make sure my school year was off to a good start.  I must admit, as I sit here flexing my fingers at the keyboard, that I feel a bit rusty.  I've missed writing every week.  I think I wrote about 20 blog posts in my head over the last three weeks.  Even though I haven't flexed my writing muscles lately, I've been very, very busy.  

I decided to focus our year together in fifth grade on a school-year-long theme: Leadership.  I wrote about this choice prior to the beginning of this school year. You can check out that post here.  As I began setting up my classroom, the leadership idea that strong cup of coffee you reach for every morning. 

Until it morphed into something bigger, deeper, and more engaging than I could've initially imagined. I began to think about leadership in terms of social justice.  This is how things evolved...

  1. We began our first two weeks, exploring the lives of Nellie Bly, George Washington Carver, Muhammad Ali, Pablo Neruda, and Cesar Chavez.  Then we moved onto the people I call, "The Powerhouse Ten."

        2. We read about Gandhi, Mandela, Sojourner Truth, DiMaggio, Carson, Mother Teresa,
            Einstein, Keller, MLK, Jr., and Owens.  We began drafting a list of leadership traits we
            discovered in each of the individuals we read about.  We ranked those traits in order of
            importance.  This led to a huge amount of discussion and debate.

        3. The we stepped inside those individuals' shoes.  We thought about what they perceived about the world, what their thoughts and beliefs were, and what mattered most to them. All of them changed the world with their words and actions...some spoke and acted for civil rights, some inspired us during wartime, others spoke and worked for human rights.


4. We began a thinking routine called "Peel the Fruit."  It's a freebie you can get by clicking the picture above. This routine is great for delving deeply into topics.  In each layer of the graphic organizer, I asked students a question. Layer 1 began with, "What are your hobbies and interests?" This was a pretty surface-level question. The questions got harder and more thought-provoking: What do you do when you make mistake? Who are you when someone is hurt or has hurt feelings? Who do you want to be in that situation.  Until finally, they wrote their word they wanted to be their guiding word for the school year. We created common definitions of their chosen words, to insure that we all had the same understanding. We used all the information and thinking in peeling the fruit to inform our word choice.

When students entered my classroom on the first day, they saw this:

They added their own power words...

          5. We began reading Perloo the Bold by Avi and applying our newfound knowledge of 
             leadership to this fantasy fiction text.   We've begun comparing the characters of 
             Perloo, Lucabara, Berwig, and Senyous to "The Powerhouse Ten."  Currently,  a new
             definition of leadership is beginning to unfold as we discuss how sometimes leaders can 
             lead quietly, without brashness or a take-charge personality.

What's Next?

We're beginning to compare Mogwat the Magpie's (the great teacher in Perloo the Bold) words of wisdom to quotations from "The Powerhouse Ten."  We're looking for similarities. We're contrasting. We're talking about truths.

We're beginning to delve into what Perloo and the many remarkable individuals we've been reading about have in common with each other.  We're beginning to hash out a definition of common good, of servant leadership, of social justice.  

From here, we'll be exploring current events, a new novel for upper elementary that has been  written about the race riots of the 1960s, engaging in a discussion (possibly) with the author, and looking for more leadership examples in our future mentor texts.  Be sure to stay tuned.  I'll be sharing frequently about this journey.    

                                                                                         Until next time,