Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

Cages & Cheetahs: The Untaming of Teachers

You are a goddamn cheetah.
                                                                                                   -Glennon Doyle, Untamed

A cheetah. We are all "goddamn cheetahs." 

Glennon Doyle's new book, Untamed, begins with a memoir in which she takes her daughter to a zoo. While there, they watch Tabitha the cheetah's feeding. Once Tabitha is away from her handlers and the crowd, Doyle observes the changes in the cheetah. In the field, Tabitha's head becomes high; she stalks the periphery and paces. Her eyes stare at something beyond the fence.  It's as if the big cat remembers her wildness. Doyle imagines a conversation with Tabitha in which she admits her dissatisfaction with her zoo life. Tabitha longs for something more...something that doesn't exist. Doyle assures Tabitha that she's not ungrateful or crazy...she's a goddamn cheetah. The memoir reads like a parable. 

I haven't blogged since Pandemic Panic set in on March 13. On March 16, I began teaching online, every day, five days a week. I spent the remainder of my time creating curriculum resources that would help me teach the grade level standards my district tagged as imperative for the remainder of the school year. I was quarantined by myself, away from family members and loved ones. I only left the house for trail hikes and groceries. The rest of the time, I paced inside my cage.

I snagged Untamed during a hurried trip to Target for toilet paper, and it sat on my coffee table until I reunited with my podcast friends to discuss our summer episodes. Lo and behold! They had all purchased it, too. Untamed is the first book in our summer reading series for teachers. And of course, we have curated some recipes to go with your reading of this powerful book!


I love the way this memoir/self-help book is organized. The first memoirs are about the cages in which women find themselves, either built by society, family or self. They are expected to marry, child-bear and rear, housekeep, and have a career. But what if those expectations aren't what they want? What if they're cheetahs, instead? I couldn't help thinking about the cages we teachers enter as we move through our careers. What realities do we have thrust upon us? The standardized tests, the unrealistic expectations, the lack of respect, the acceptance of that lack of respect, of resources, of adequate pay, of public derision and distrust. In this section of her book, Doyle encourages her readers to feel all of the feelings. It reminds me of the stories I've told myself at low points in my career, when I've wanted to give up. I stuff the feelings down, because coming out of that cage feels a bit terrifying. If I admit that I'm unhappy or dissatisfied, then I must do something about it.  If I can't admit my feelings to myself, how can I possibly grow from them? 


This section is my favorite. Doyle passes us a few hacksaws so we can break out of our cages. Her short memoirs are action plans. My favorite one is "Be Still and Know." She talks about getting quiet inside in order to listen to herself. When I think about how many voices I allow in my decision-making (my colleagues, my parent, my friends, my sibling, my principal), I realize that I seldom listen to my own voice. And then I must ask the question: Do I trust myself? This part of the book moved me into action. As teachers, how often do we listen to our own voices? How often do we assert our voices?


In the final section of Untamed, I found myself reflecting on two words: Burning and building. Glennon's analogy about burning the old cages to build new realities for ourselves reminds me of an article I read about the Australian wildfires. When Australia was done burning, within weeks, new growth appeared. Green appeared everywhere. In this section, she talks about her own burning and building, and it is inspiring. Again, I asked myself hard questions: What are my beliefs about myself as a teacher? As a 
human being? What do I need to edit? And finally, what will take its place?

This read is the perfect book to reflect on our quarantine, our school year, and our personal lives. We had a great time discussing it. You can listen to We Teach So Hard right HERE

P.S. It's good to be back with you, my readers. I've missed you. Until next time, I'll be burning and building! Click below to find out more. 

Small Wonders & e. e. cummings: Poetry and Mindfulness

The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.
                                                                                                        -e. e. cummings

It was my father who taught me how to observe the world. After watching him with my nieces and nephew, I'm sure my education began at a very young age, but what I remember most are the forced nature hikes through the state forest behind our house. I say, "forced" because my mom made me go with him. She had some cockamamie idea that getting my nose out of my book so I could get some fresh air might be good for me. 

On our nature hikes, my dad would point out animal scat and tracks. He taught me how to find deer crossings and showed me where the bucks used trees to rub the velvet off their antlers. He taught me to identify trees by their bark and leaves. I learned to always walk away from bear cubs...quickly. 

To be a poet, one must be a close observer of the world. One of my new favorite poetry book discoveries is enormous SMALLNESS A Story of E. E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess. 

  • I think of this books as a hybrid text, because it tells the story of how e. e. cummings became a poet, from childhood to adulthood, but it also weaves his poetry into the story. Throughout the book, readers see how cummings learned to observe and experience the world around him. The title especially makes my heart strings zing. As a teacher and poet, I want my students to know that paying attention to the little things in life is often what makes life joyful. It makes us mindful of the present moment.

Activity #1

I've chosen three of Cummings'  poems to share with my students. They just happen to be on the end pages of the book. Reading his poems are like unwrapping a puzzle box. The language play is so much fun, as are his inventive line breaks. One of my favorite things to do is experiment with how we read his poems out loud. We read them as he wrote them, trying to pay attention to the way he has broken up lines and words. Then, I challenge my students to rewrite the poems with their own line breaks. We read them again and discover how powerful line breaks are in poems. With this activity, we're examining Cummings' writer's craft and answering the question: Why did he write it like that?

 Activity #2

Next, we talk about mood and imagery. We reread the poems and highlight images and language that jumps out at us. I curate a collection of visual arts and ask my students to pair the art with the selected poems. 

"Love Flight of a Pink Candy Heart" Florence Stettheimer
They spend a lot of time discussing their choices. The best part of this activity is that my students must think deeply about the poet's language, imagery, and meaning when pairing the poems and artwork. Check out the three paintings below. Which poem (shown above) would you pair them with? Why? I'd love to hear your thinking in the comments!
"Lake George Reflection" Georgia O'Keeffe
"The Pink Peach Tree" Vincent Van Gogh

Activity #3
I´ve been hoarding a collection of Altoids tins. This past fall, I sent out an email to my entire school district asking teachers to save the tins for me. I was rewarded with over 60 tins. Before our covid-19 quarantine, I brought them home and began to find small treasures to place in each tin. My plan was for each student to receive a gift-wrapped tin. Upon opening their tin, they would closely observe the treasure in their tin. Now, I'm uploading photographs into my Google Classroom site. Each student will choose a photograph to use for his/her prewriting and poetry writing exercises. 

The pre-writing routine I'm going to use with my students is called 10X3. It was developed by Project Zero. It helps students look deeply at an object or picture. The cool thing about this routine is that it's generic enough to be used for any type of writing. My students will use it to capture their descriptive writing ideas for a small wonder poem. 

We'll be writing all kinds of poetry in the next few weeks. This is a routine I'll be tapping into. As students develop their poems, we'll be sharing them in our Google Classroom site. If our quarantine goes longer (as I'm anticipating it will), we're going to have a virtual Poetry Slam using Google Meet or Zoom. I'll keep you posted on how that goes!

There's nothing easy about this covid-19 quarantine. The fear is paralyzing.  The schooling and routines that would've grounded our students is gone. I'm trying to help them make a little lemonade from the lemons they've been served. 

I hope the freebies below will help you out with your online teaching efforts. Please take care of yourselves. 
Click the pictures below to access the free Google resources.
You can access the newest episode of the We Teach So Hard podcast by clicking on the graphic to the left. It's all about using poetry in your classroom.  
                                        Finally, be sure to stop by Retta, Deann, and Kathie's blogs. They're chocked full of teaching ideas and resources for more poetry-themed books. You do NOT want to miss out on these posts!        

Teaching Data, Graphing & Scientific Process With Paper Airplanes!

This story begins like many of my teaching stories begin...curriculum crunch! With mandated state testing occurring in April, I needed a high-interest way to combine several learning goals in math, science and language arts. So my fifth grade kiddos and I flew off into "the wild blue yonder" together, because let's face it, after state testing, everyone's brains are mush. Worksheets and internet learning programs just don't cut it. We had been sitting in front of our computers for weeks as we clicked answers on a screen. We needed to move!

We began by researching types of paper airplanes on the internet. Students identified a type they wanted to fold. They took their research sheets home, finished their research there and brought their completed airplane back to school.  When I used this project in summer school, we did the research together.

Once they had their airplanes at school, we shared their different designs. We read about thrust, force, and aerodynamics and watched some online videos about aviation and design. Then my kids were ready to fly.  One of our learning targets in this project was to learn about the scientific process. Students wrote hypotheses before testing their planes. They conducted five flight trials and recorded their distances in inches. 

My kids needed more practice with converting customary measurements, so after they had recorded their data in inches, they converted it into feet and yards.   We were able to review range, median, mode and mean as well.  I used this project to also teach my students about line plots by plotting our class data together. In addition, we reviewed bar graphs and learned about line graphs. 

This portion of the project took us about a week of one-hour sessions. However, we had touched on so many math and science 
concepts, it was worth every minute. Plus, my fifth graders were ENGAGED! For this time of year, that felt miraculous! After this, I was ready to teach more about controls and variables. We spent time learning about why controls and variables are so important in the scientific process. I used a lunch room example in our discussions. If the lunch ladies wanted to know which pizza was the most popular with fifth graders, and they ordered pepperoni pizza from Little Caesar's and cheese pizza from Jet's Pizza, would they be able to answer their question?  My kiddos determined that all pizza needed to be ordered from the same restaurant in order for the question to be answered with accuracy. From this discussion, we
moved on to applying control and variable to our paper airplane investigation.  I gave each student the folding directions for a basic dart airplane. These airplanes became the control for the assessment phase of this project. 

 I wanted to test my students ability to conduct the experiment on their own. I designed this part to assess their mastery of these concepts: Measurement, customary measurement conversion, graphing skills (coordinate, line and line plot), problem-solving, writing a math/science response, comparing and contrasting two sets of data, and identifying the control and variable of an experiment. 

My kids flew their control airplanes, recorded their data and analyzed it. Next, they took that same airplane and added one feature to it. This became their variable. Some students taped the fold together. Others added a paperclip to the bottom of the plane. Some taped a rudder on. There were many different variable designs. However, each plane only had ONE variable. Then they tested their airplanes
again and recorded their data once more. Finally, they created line graphs showing the two sets of data, and wrote compare/contrast responses that analyzed their data and made conclusions about their variables. 
I developed a quick rubric for my assessment. I had shared this rubric with my kids at the beginning of the assessment phase of this project, so that they would understand the target expectations. 

This project rocked our world for two weeks, but it also saved our sanity.  We have so many curriculum expectations, and I've found that melding subjects into creative learning experiences is the way to go. My kiddos were engaged, excited, and on fire!

I've also used this in my summer school teaching experiences. Summer school is often a special kind of misery for many of our kids, isn't it? It needs to be focused, but it MUST be fun, too. 

P.S. Be sure to check out the links below. I've included some free resources you can use with your kiddos when you're teaching them remotely. Such a stressful time. I hope they help you in some way. Simply click on the images to access and download.

You can access this project below, by clicking on the image.

You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!
Click here to enter

Klimt & Katze: A Literacy and Art Project Story

I can remember it like it was yesterday. Instead of teaching the American Revolutionary War with a textbook, Mr. Zabel decided we would settle the matter with a court case. Each of us chose an identity to adopt. I was on the colonist side, and I chose Patrick Henry. We researched the events leading up to the war, worked as a legal team to form a case. We searched for evidence to prove our right to independence. I remember the moment I discovered an article about King George and porphyria. I was on top of the world. Here was evidence that the king could be suffering from hysteria, hallucinations, psychosis and depression. We brought the article to court and won our case for the colonists!

It's the first memory I have of learning coming alive for me. I was in seventh grade. When I think about my two years in his 7th and 8th grade classroom, I remember being a consistently engaged learner. Why? Because we did projects, we had choice, and our learning opportunities often meshed together multiple subjects. 

As teachers, we know that our students learn best when they are able to hook new learning onto what they already know. Mr. Zabel knew this, and so do I. It's why I love multidisciplinary projects so much. When I'm faced with teaching something that feels a bit "dry," I look for unique ways to connect the dots for my students.

I was beginning a unit on nonfiction text and needed to teach text structures. Because I was a student who loved the arts, it's a not-so-secret passion of mine to incorporate it into everything I do in my classroom. I had recently read a book I picked up at a used bookstore about artists and their cats, and it reminded me of a famous photo I had seen of Gustav Klimt with his favorite feline, Katze. That's how it all began. We started by reading a couple of picture books about Klimt. We also read a biography that I wrote about Klimt. We did this to get acquainted with the artist and his art. 

Then we looked at some of his art. We used visible thinking routines called "Color, Shape, Lines" and "10X2." The pieces I chose for our art response activity were "Portrait of Emilie Floge," "The Kiss," "The Tree of Life," and "Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer." The visible thinking routines help students really dig into a painting. It was interesting to listen in on their discussions as they dissected what they were seeing. They noticed the gold leaf and patterns of symbols right away. They also noticed how the patterns seem to repeat from painting to painting. 

For the next session, we read a series of short nonfiction articles about Gustav's beloved pets, the cat. I wrote each article so that it would model these text structures: Problem-solution, compare-contrast, sequence, description, and cause-effect. We spent a couple of days discussing these articles. Finally, students used what we had studied in our nonfiction unit to identify the text structures of each passage. They proved their claims by using textual evidence. 

We had a blast in the next two phases of the project. Each student chose a cat photograph. Using the photos, we played The Explanation Game in small groups. This thinking routine is a game-like discussion strategy that teaches students how to elaborate. Then students completed two more pre-writing activities about their chosen pictures. 

Finally, we began to write our poems about cats. I taught them how to write a Rictometer poem. This poetry form is like a cross between haiku and cinquain. This format is tons of fun. I modeled writing one for my students: 

The One That Got Away
My snack,
Tender whiskers,
Toes and tails, button eyes, 
He'll squeak and scurry while I play
Mouse hockey with my velvet paws,
Until my claws, unsheathed and sharp, 
Pounce and swat 'til he streaks
Behind the couch.
My snack. 
By Tracy Willis

Our final part of the project was to create a Klimt-inspired cat. Students used cat outlines that I copied for them on cardstock. The only other thing I had to buy was metallic gold Sharpies. I bought enough so that I had one marker for each pair of students. They also used colored pencils, Crayola markers, and black Sharpies. We looked at Klimt's art again before beginning, and I encouraged them to choose one painting as the inspiration for their cats. This part of the project took about two sessions. 

My students voted for this as their favorite project from the whole school year! What I love about it is that I don't lose rigor or student engagement because I implemented the arts and meshed reading, writing and art together in one unit. In fact, my students developed their critical thinking skills and had fun...imagine that!

Art is a line around your thoughts.
                                                          -Gustav Klimt

If you're looking for multidisciplinary projects for your classroom, check these out. These particular projects bring reading, writing, and art together and teach critical thinking skills. Click the images below to learn more!