Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

Love Letters & Brussel Sprouts: Exploring Odes and Point-of-View

You're my funny valentine, sweet comic valentine

You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable, unphotographable
Yet, you're my favorite work of art.
-Rodgers & Hart

Growing up, I never crushed on the cutie patooties or the hottie patotties.  I fell for the guys who could make me laugh hysterically or make me swoon by reciting poetry.  So, it's only natural that as a teacher, the valentine books I love the most incorporate poetry and humor.  That's what led me to Love Letters by Arnold Adoff.  This book is comprised of funny, touching, and yet untraditional love letters written as poems and odes.  The letters are addressed to teachers, classmates, family members, or to"fill-in-your-own-name," which is the perfect poem for those people who have a harem of admirers.  The poems in this book stand independently and could be shared one at a time over the course of a couple of weeks. 
Adoff uses fantastic imagery that any child can relate to,  "I love you more than peanut butter cookies crumble. I  love you more than yellow bees bumble. I also love you more than dark thunder clouds rumble..."  These lines are from the poem entitle "Dear Tall Girl at the Front Table," one of my favorites in the book.

Every year, I share this book with my students.  My fourth and fifth graders love it and "get" the humor in it. I use it to introduce odes and anti-odes. We brainstorm a list of ideas for our own odes, for example: A  pet dog, cat, guinea pig, etc., pepperoni pizza, mom's lasagna, brussel sprouts, broccoli, piano, hockey stick, soccer ball, x-box, play station, Legos, teddy bear, favorite book, favorite book character, etc. 

After we've made our collaborative list, they choose a few of the topics that grab them, and sort them into the categories "things I love," and "things I hate. Once they've done this type of thinking, they zoom in one topic and dig deeper into their feelings about the topic. Here's an example:

Then they explore point-of-view. In Love Letters, the poems are sometimes companion poems that explore different view points. So if I'm writing about brussel sprouts, I write about own point-of-view and how much I loathe them. And then, if the brussel sprouts were to write a letter back to me, what would they say? As a poet, I explore both viewpoints.

Finally, my students begin their rough drafts. We spend about two sessions drafting and revising. I make sure to include a mini-lesson about line breaks, because fourth and fifth grade students still tend to write poetry in paragraph form. We do a lot of reading aloud to ourselves using our whisper phones. By the way, this is AWESOME fluency practice! I teach my kiddos that poetry is actually an art form that is meant to be read aloud. So when they choose to read poetry books or their own poems during independent reading time, I let them go hog wild with whisper phones. 

I should add that I model each pre-writing, drafting and revision step for my students. Here are two examples of poems that I wrote with them in order to model the process:

 Dear Macaroni and Cheese,
I looooove your cheesy goodness.
I am overwhelmed by your
bubbling orangeiness.
I love you more than a dog
loves its bone,
more than a baby
loves its bottle.
Your crispy cracker crumbs,
golden like the summer sun,
send me over the moon.
I will love you forever.
Your Hungry Fan

(By Ms. Willis)
My students identify comparative statements (simile-like), personification, alliteration, and descriptive language as I write and we discuss.  Then, I model an anti-ode.  You can also see it below:
Dear Brussel Sprouts,
I loathe your army-green leafy heads
wrapped tightly on my dinner plate.
No bacon or butter
can disguise your nastiness,
your cruciferous metallic taste.
You look like mutant baby heads.
And on dark and lonely nights,
you hold me hostage
at the supper table,
long after the dishes have been done,
and the kitchen
has been cleaned.
 Signed with disgust,
I'll-eat-any-other-vegetable-other-than-you Girl

After students have published their poems on the special valentine stationery I provide for them, we use an envelope template and make envelopes for our poems. They address the envelopes. They put their published poems in their envelopes, and we display them for everyone to read.

Valentine's Day can be a tricky holiday in upper elementary. Hormones have begun to rage, friendships are precariously navigated, and feeling are easily hurt. This project is one of my students' favorites, year after year. It's funny, creative, and non-threatening (and Common Core aligned)!

To learn more about using it in your own classroom, simply click on the picture.

If you're looking for more upper elementary valentine resources, you might also check these out. Two of them are free!


Civil Rights Heroes: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives

A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure inspite of overwhelming obstacles.
                                                -Christopher Reeves

Ask any kid about heroes, and he or she will rattle off names like Batman or Superman, or a list of professional football or hockey players' names. And yet every January when my team and I begin teaching our civil rights unit, my kids view King, Mandela, Gandhi, Helen Keller, and other activists with round eyes. Whenever we read a biography or picture book about these people, I can see my fifth graders mentally placing superhero capes over the shoulders of these activists. 

And why not? They made remarkable strides in the civil rights fight. I've come to question if that really is beneficial for my students, though.  Hear me out. Heroes are important. The belief in heroes can foster hope in otherwise hopeless situations. But I can't help but think that it's important for kids to know their heroes as people. When students are able to look past the epic accomplishments of their heroes to the human beings underneath the capes, they find real people, often with humble beginnings who accomplished great things for the common good. In doing so, my students can see what they might have in common with these activists and realize that these ordinary people were capable of greatness, and if they were, wouldn't my kids be capable of greatness, too? Wouldn't they be able to be thoughtful citizens who speak up when times call for it?

So how do I get my fifth graders to look at the human beings instead of the superheroes? We use a little character theorizing and close reading. Last week, my students and I spent the week reading excerpts from three of Dr. King's speeches: "I Have a Dream," "The Other America," and "I've Been to the Mountaintop." My kids had only heard and read "I Have a Dream." 

On the first day, we read an excerpt from "The Other America." I read it to them, and they highlighted words, sentences and phrases that stood out to them. We discussed the speech and then we completed a "Step Inside" thinking routine. We identified the things that Dr. King perceived or observed and backed it up with evidence from the speech. Then we inferred what he believes and thinks about America, again based on evidence. In the third step, we identified what it is that Dr. King wanted or cared about.  Finally, I asked my students to work in small groups to write a theory about who Dr. King really was, based on his words.

The next day, we read an excerpt from "I Have A Dream." I introduced it the same way. This time however, we used the thinking routine Sentence-Phrase-Word. In this routine, readers choose one sentence, one phrase, and one word from the speech that impacted them. We shared their choices with partners, and then we recorded them on chart paper. We used their collective thinking to discuss and revise our theories about Dr. King. 

On the third day, we read "I've Been to the Mountaintop." I introduced it in the same way, and students did the "Step Inside" thinking routine again. Finally, we rewrote our theories about Dr. King. My students noticed that each speech had a different tone. They thought that "The Other America" sounded angrier than the other two. Some commented that "I Have a Dream" seemed full of hope, but that "Mountaintop" was hopeful but very fiery. As a class, they decided that the "Mountaintop" speech was the most powerful out of the three because of his word choice.

Over the next two days, we created black-out poems using the speech excerpts we had read together in class. Each student chose her favorite speech, circled words that were essential, outlined those words in black and then created artwork around them. The results were beautiful.

In the end, I think my students have a greater understanding of who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, and they know that his humanity was his greatest asset. More importantly, they realized that they have some of those same capabilities. 

Interested in using the mini-unit I described in this post? You'll find it and some others to help you plan for Black History Month and your civil rights studies.

Roses Are Red: Using Poetry in Reader's Workshop

...How do you like to go up in a swing, | Up in the air so blue? | Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing | Ever a child can do? | Up in the air and over the wall, |till I can see so wide, | Rivers and trees and cattle and all | Over the countryside--- | Till I look down on the garden green, | Down on the roof so brown--- | Up in the air I go flying again, | Up in the air and down?
                                                                               -Robert Louis Stevenson

I still remember this poem from a childhood book of poetry.  I can visualize the illustrations (which I adored), and the sing-song way my mom and grandma would read it to me.  I bet you have a favorite childhood poem, too.  Childhood is filled with poetry, from nursery rhymes to jump-rope chants, from Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein to rap lyrics. As teachers, we sometimes use poetry to work on reading fluency with children.  We teach finger plays to preschoolers.  These early exposures develop memory skills, rhythm and steady beat music abilities, and reading fluency.  But often time, elementary teachers miss out on reading comprehension opportunities because of how they don't use poetry.

In working with colleagues over the last 26 years, both as a classroom teacher and literacy coach, I've noticed that teachers are very comfortable teaching figurative language devices such as alliteration, metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, etc.  They're adept at teaching students to use poetic forms like cinquain, haiku, diamonte, list poems in writer's workshop.  However, we know from educational research that reading and writing are more interdependent than we thought. According to K12Reader (, "The relationship between reading and writing is a bit like that of the chicken and egg. Which came first is not as important as the fact that without one the other cannot exist. A child's literacy development is dependent on the interconnection between reading and writing." In order for children to write poetry in which they grow their writer's craft, they need to be critical readers of poetry.

Here's a homework assignment for you. Ask your colleagues how or if they teach their students to read poetry.  You may be surprised by what you find out.

Poetry is complex text.  The whole nature of the genre is to express deep emotions and life experiences in a metaphorical way. Understanding poetry demands inferential thinking, synthesis, analysis, critiquing and making connections- all of which are higher level reading comprehension skills. There are a variety of ways to include poetry in your reader's workshop. Check out some of the suggestions below!
  1.  Create text sets of poems: I've copied individual poems, glued them on large note cards and laminated the cards.  I hole-punch the cards, collecting them on rings.  I make six identical rings and use them as reading pieces with my guided reading groups, just as I would guided reading novels.
  2. Using the same approach, copy individual poems, glue them onto 3x5 note cards, and laminate them. Then place them in brightly-colored library card pockets. Tuck the pockets inside partner novels, picture books, or nonfiction texts.  The mystery of how the poem is connected to the other piece of literature is motivational for students. I've done this with guided reading groups, too. It's fun to hear how students connect the two texts.  And, it's an important academic skill.
  3. Use poems to discuss theme. Create text sets of poems with similar themes. Because most poetry is about strong feelings and life truths, discussing theme is a natural activity with poetry. We often do this using the "CSI" thinking routine from Making Thinking Visible (Ritchart, Morrison & Church). This routine requires students to think about mood.  What color would you assign to the poem? What symbol would you create for this poem? Why? What image comes to mind as you read this poem? Sketch it! Using poetry in this way demands visualization, and symbolic thinking and interpretation. 

  4. Use poems to discuss point-of-view and perspective.  I use a thinking routine called "Step Inside" from Making Thinking Visible (Ritchart, Morrison & Church). After read a piece of poetic text, I ask students what they think the poet's perceptions are about life...what are her beliefs about life?  What does the poem tell us about what is important to the poet?  "Step Inside" is perfect for this type of discussion.
I could go on and on with ideas for poetry in reader's workshop because it's one of my absolute favorite genres to use. However, just like any other literature, the depth of text a teacher uses with her students determines the level of thinking in which her students will engage. I currently teach fifth grade, but have taught every grade K-8. Meaty poems can be used with all's the amount and type of meat in the poem that varies according to the grade level.

For example, "Proud Words" by Carl Sandburg works well with fourth and fifth graders when the social dynamics of puberty are ramping up. It's a great example of personification to share with students.  While "Bad Day" by Myra Cohn Livingston is a great fit for second or third graders.  Don't shy away from using work from poets usually associated with adults.  Believe it or not, there are some poems by poet greats like Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni,  Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, and e.e. cummings that elementary and middle school students can understand and enjoy.

Check out some of the titles I've successfully used in my reader's workshop below!

  1. "And My Heart Soars" - Chief Dan George
  2. "Celebration" - Alonzo Lopez
  3. "Days" -Karle Wilson Baker
  4. "Acquainted With the Night," "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening" -Robert Frost
  5. "It Is Grey Out" - Karla Kuskin
  6. "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" & "Hope is the Thing With Feathers" -Emily Dickinson
  7. "Daybreak in Alabama," "Dream Deferred," "Dreams," "Dream Boogie," "Mother to Son" & "Dream Variations" - Langston Hughes
  8. "In Just" - e.e. cummings
  9. "Skiing"- Bobbi Katz
  10. "Listening to Grownups Quarreling" -Ruth Whitman
  11. "Karate Kid" -Jane Yolen
  12. "Spider Webs" -Ray Fabrizio
  13. "Way Down in the Music" -Eloise Greenfield
  14. "Words Free As Confetti" -Pat Mora
  15. "Starry Night I," "Starry Night II," and "Solitude" -Eve Merriam
  16. "Words" -Pablo Neruda
  17. "This is Just to Say" -William Carlos Williams
  18. "The Bells" -Edgar Alan Poe
You might also check out these novels written in poetry: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, Love That Dog Hate That Cat, both by Sharon Creech, and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.

It truly is amazing to see what happens when poetry is fully incorporated into a reader's workshop.  If a teacher can resist the urge to interpret the meaning and leave room for her students' voices, she won't be disappointed!

You might like to check out some of these resources, mentioned above, to help you launch poetry in your reader's workshop! There's a freebie here for you, too! 


This month, I've teamed up with some great teacher bloggers for our Teacher Talk blog hop. There are some phenomenal ideas here for you. Be sure to visit their blogs below. Simply click on the links!


Using Visible Thinking to Read with Wonder

Criss-cross applesauce. That's how I was sitting on the floor of the kindergarten classroom. I had scrunched my 40-something year old self into a pretzel so I could watch kindergartners with chocolate milk mustaches and grass-stained knees eyeball goldfish in science class aquariums. The excitement was palpable.

"Whooaaaaa! Look at that one!"
"He's fast!"
"Can I name mine Stella?"
"I'm gonna name mine Batman!"

Then the scientists got down to business. They whipped out pencils and orange, yellow, black and white crayons. They drew what they saw. They drew arrows to label fins, eyes, gills and tails. Riveted, their kindergarten eyes were glued to every movement in their aquariums. 

The room was filled with wonder, and for a brief moment, I thought about moving from fifth grade to kindergarten. 

I quickly got over my lapse of reason. Teaching upper elementary is my happy place, but the seductive glory of kindergarten wonder and astonishment turned my head. I ambled back to my own classroom thinking about the importance of wonder in learning and teaching. 

As a dinosaur in the teaching world (I prefer to think of myself as an armored triceratops), I've noticed a trend in my readers. My students gravitate toward what I call "hot fudge sundae books." They read the trifecta: Wimpy kids,  underpants, the Disney-endorsed fiction. Don't get me wrong. I love the fact that they are reading, but my heart longs for them to independently experience books on a deeper level...books that stay with them like a fabulous meal at a five-star restaurant...books that make them wonder about the world.

That's how I talk to them about reading. They need a balanced diet. I go into the whole nutritional reading metaphor and talk about how dessert books only fill your mind up to a certain point, and then you're hungry again. That approach works, but only on a short-term basis. So I decided I had to do some marketing. 

First Chapter Fridays & Visible Thinking

Taking a page from Ron Ritchart's Making Thinking Visible, I massaged the Zoom In thinking routine, and added a dash of the See-Think-Wonder routine. 

Every Friday, I bring three chapter books from my classroom library to our meeting area. I facilitate a see-think-wonder about the covers of each book. 
What do you see? What do you notice on the cover?
What do you think about what you notice?
What are you wondering about?
Then I read the first chapter of the first book. I stop about 3 to 4 times as I read through the chapter so students can zoom in. The zoom-in thinking routine is usually used with visuals. It allows students to view an image in small chunks.  I modified this routine and used it with text. Students were allowed to see/hear small sections of the first chapter, until the whole chapter was revealed. At each stopping point, I ask students to stop and jot their noticings, thoughts, and questions. At the end of the first chapter, they stand up and walk and talk with a thinking partner about the chapter they just heard. 

Then I do it again with the second and third books I choose. By the end of the session, they are jockeying in line to get those books, so much so, that we have created wait lists for our First Chapter Friday books.

It's funny how simple some solutions can be, isn't it? As a result of our see-think-wonder, zoom-in routines and First Chapter Fridays, my students are branching out as a readers and thinkers. They're discovering new worlds, and I couldn't be happier. 
There are worlds within worlds...Everything in our world is connected by the delicate strands of the web of life..."

Want to explore some visible thinking routines in your classroom? Do your students read a balanced diet? Check out these resources! They could make a difference for your kiddos, as they did mine!

I'm so lucky and privileged to be part of a phenomenal group of upper elementary bloggers. You won't want to miss out on their posts about wonder and curiosity this month! Visit them below!