Making Thinking Visible

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Making Thinking Visible

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One Cool Way to Leap Content-Area Vocabulary in a Single Bound

Copy the words on your paper. Then use a dictionary to find the definitions. Write the definitions next to each word on your paper. Memorize them. You have a test on Friday.

Raise your hand if you rolled your eyes or groaned after reading those directions. And yet, I'd bet you a Starbucks coffee that this was your experience learning in vocabulary in elementary and middle school! I know it was mine. As a student, nothing could make my eyes gloss over faster than directions like the ones above. 

As a teacher, I needed to find more interactive ways to introduce unit vocabulary in content-area subjects. I finally found one that engaged my students, made the words "stick," and helped my kiddos think about the words in context. 

In fifth grade math, fractions comprise a huge part of our curriculum. It's vocab heavy, and quite frankly, nothing makes most fifth graders break out into nervous sweats like fractions. With this webbing approach, we begin by brainstorming and predicting fraction words we might encounter in our unit. 
Students work in table groups to generate a list of fraction words. They write these on post-its. Then, each group reports out to the whole group. I made a whole-group list on our whiteboard. We discussed any words that are unfamiliar before moving on to the second step.

The second step is what makes this strategy so powerful. Students must talk about the words and negotiate with each other. I give each group a sheet of paper with concentric rings. The word fraction goes in the center ring. Students work in groups to sort the words from the whole-group list. The words most related to the central word go in the closest ring. However, they must also identify how those words are related to each other. Are some more connected to each other than others? 

My kiddos engage in some pretty deep discussions, and sometimes the debate becomes heated. However, they are also learning to defend their thinking with evidence. That means that they are using #3 and 4 in the Standards for Mathematical Practice. They're constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, and modeling with mathematics to support their opinions. 

After small groups plot their words on the concentric web, they meet with another small group to compare their collective thinking. Again, debate occurs. 

I can't say it enough: This little strategy has rocked our world in my classroom, in ALL subject areas. 

This year, I took it one step further and asked my students, "If the word equivalent was a superhero, what would his/her powers be?" I did an example to show them what I meant. I would make Equivalent Woman. She would be a superhero who fought to make all situations balanced and fair. She would be called in to decide tough cases where equations weren't equal. Having a hard time installing carpet? Equivalent Woman to the rescue! She'll make sure that you can convert those fractional measurements accurately. I created a superhero symbol/logo for Equivalent Woman. 

I asked each student to choose one of our unit vocabulary words. They weren't allowed to choose a word that someone else had already chosen. Together, we developed a series of questions to help us think about the word and superhero character.

  1. What is the formal definition of the word?
  2. What do I think it means in my own words?
  3. What real-life problems could my superhero solve, and how would those problems relate to the definition.
  4. How would my superhero be dressed? 
  5. What is my superhero's logo? 
We had a blast with this! In the end, my kiddos created superhero posters for our unit vocabulary. These were on display throughout the unit, and because they were student-created, they were CONSISTENTLY used by my students. You can check out some of their rough drafts below:

My favorite thing about this approach is that my kids come away with increased understanding and retention of the vocabulary... and they're engaged. REALLY ENGAGED.  No one had to copy 20 definitions out a Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 

Interested in reading more about how I teach content-area and tier 2 vocabulary? Click HERE and HERE.

Or you can check out these resources! Just click on the picture.

A Summer Reads Series for Teachers: The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

 The garden is a world filled with secrets. Slowly, I see more each day. The black pines twist and turn to form graceful shapes, while the moss is a carpet of green that invites you to sit by the pond. Even the stone lanterns, which dimly light the way at night, allow you to see only so much.

It's summer! Finally. I began my summer by revisiting an old favorite, The Samurai's Garden  by Gail Tsukiyama. I chose this first read, because by the time school is out, I'm wired so tightly that I need a little Zen meditation. That's what this gorgeously written story does for me. 

It tells the story of Stephen Chan, a 20-year-old Chinese student who leaves school in Canton to recuperate from tuberculosis at his family's beach house in Tarumi, Japan. Once there, he meets Matsu, the gruff caretaker whose family has served Stephen's family for generations. Behind his abrupt exterior, Matsu has the heart of a Samurai. As Matsu and Sachi's heartbreaking stories unfold, Stephen heals. The novel is set during the 1930s, with mounting tensions as Japan invades China. 

Each week, over the next month, my podcast group and I will be discussing fabulous pleasure reads for teachers and offering fun freebies that accompany the books. The Samurai's Garden is our first recommendation. Before you listen to our podcasts, be sure to read the books, because there are spoilers! These are some of the questions we discussed...

Be sure to check out my featured freebie for our We Teach So Hard listeners. The gorgeous quotation cards will keep you Zen throughout the year. Click the picture below to access.

Once you've read the book, listen to our book discussion on the WE TEACH SO HARD podcast. Just click the picture below to listen.

Exploring Patterns With Project-Based Learning: Rotations, Reflections & Translations

"Ms. Willis, this is hard!"

I was looking for a way to cement my students' learning in geometry, one that would include exploring spatial relationships, patterning, and translations, rotations, and reflections (slides, flips and turns). I also wanted to explore this using visible thinking routines because I find that every time I use these routines, my students take ownership of their learning.  This was a 4-day process.  I hesitated because of the amount of time I knew it would take up, but I'm so glad I pushed forward with my idea.  The rewards were well worth the time.
 Day 1
I began by showing examples of tessellations.  I used a mini-definition poster that I created to explain what a tessellation is and then gave each student a tessellation photo card.  These tag cards are photos from nature and man-made structures, as well as computer-generated patterns, and they all are examples of tessellations, except for one card.  I used that card to challenge students to use the mini-definition poster to determine whether or not it was a tessellating pattern.  They determined that it isn't, and they would be right!   Each student received a numbered card.  We spent some time looking at each other's cards. 

Then I put my tessellation card on the document camera to project it on the Smart Board.  Using a response sheet, I modeled my thinking about my tessellation.  The response sheet used questions combining "See, Think, & Wonder" and "3-2-1"  thinking routines.  For example, we wrote three math words that described our tessellating pattern.  We also wrote two questions we had about what we were seeing.  We described what we were seeing on our cards, as well as what we were thinking about what we were observing.  Doing this gave students an opportunity to practice using their math vocabulary, and it gave me an opportunity for a formative assessment as I wandered the room conducting my own observations.  We also wrote a simile for each of our patterns.

After using the response sheet, students sat in groups of three to share their thoughts, questions, and observations. 

Day 2

Day 2 was eagerly anticipated by my students.  I issued "the challenge" to them: Create your own tessellating pattern using pattern blocks; your tessellation MUST include rotation, reflection, and translation.  I gave each student a paper on which to create so they had boundaries for their tessellations. 

I allowed students time to explore with the pattern blocks while I watched.  One of the things I noticed that the majority of them were struggling with is that they began to make pictures instead of patterns. I approached many students, asking them the question, "What comes next?"  When they couldn't answer the question, it was a tip off for them that they were not creating a pattern. 

I called students together and modeled the difference between making a cool picture and making a pattern.  As I made my pattern, I repeated it out loud for students to hear, "Hexagon, parallelogram, parallelogram, trapezoid...hexagon, parallelogram, parallelogram, trapezoid..."  This seemed to turn the collective light bulb on for them. They went back to their own workspaces to complete their patterns. 
At the end of this session, all students had a pattern block tessellation.  I took pictures of these on my phone and uploaded them to my classroom computer so I could print copies for them to refer to the next day. 

Day 3

By the time day 3 rolled around, student excitement was pretty high.  We revisited the photos of our tessellations from the day before.  Then, I gave students the direction guide for making their paper tessellations, as well as the rubric I developed.  I wanted them to know the learning targets for this assessment BEFORE they began their final project.  After we read through both of these documents together, students began coloring and cutting their paper pattern blocks. The paper pattern blocks are another resource I created.  They arranged these on an 8x8 inch square of black construction paper, gluing only after they had practiced their patterns again.  
This took all of our math session for day 3.  As I walked around monitoring, I reminded students to keep their rubric in sight so they would remember the learning targets. 

Day 4

Day 4 was spent writing about our tessellations.  I provided a writing page on which students recorded their thinking and descriptions of their tessellating patterns.  They were required to use math vocabulary from a word bank in their explanations.  This gave students another opportunity to practice using math vocabulary in their writing.  It also allowed me to check, once again, for their understanding. 

Finally, I asked students to take out their rubric sheets and self-assess their tessellation projects and writing. 

I am very please with how this project went.  One of my students who has high math ability gave me the ultimate compliment.  He said, "Ms. Willis, this is hard!"  What is always interesting to me is WHO finds this project difficult.  Many of my students who are average or lower skilled math students loved this project and found it to be "just right" for them.  Some of my very high math students were challenged by it!  I love this.  That same student told me that "open-ended assignments are harder" for him.  I love that he knows this about himself.  Projects like this leave room for everyone to succeed, don't they?  I saw very complicated patterns over the four days of this project, but I also saw very simple patterns.  Project-based learning allows for flexibility with differentiation and gives us, as educators, a window into students' thinking that we might not see otherwise. 

Another student asked at the end of the fourth session, "When can we do another math project, Ms. Willis?" I can hardly wait.  I've got coordinate geometry and Van Gogh on my brain.

If you liked reading about this interdisciplinary project, then you should check out the links below! Simply click on the pictures. They're great sanity savers for your end-of-year lessons. 

Be sure to check out these other awesome posts from the Teacher Talk community. You won't be sorry!

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3 + Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month

  1. match or surpass (a person or achievement), typically by imitation.

    "lesser men trying to emulate his greatness"

    synonyms:imitatecopyreproducemimicmirrorechofollow, model oneself on, take as a model, take as an example; 

"When we teach our students how to become writers, we want them to first read, then analyze, and finally emulate."

I can't remember who said this. I was sitting in our state's literacy conference listening to four of my teaching heroes speak: Pernille Ripp, Stephanie Harvey, Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. As is often the case with me when I swim in a sea of ideas, I remember the ideas, but can't remember whose ocean I was in at the time. 


What a fabulous word, though. If I could offer any earth shattering tips for writing poetry with students, this word would be at the center of all my efforts. If you want to break out of the "write a write a diamonte poem" rut, check out the 3 lesson ideas below.  Let me add that we read and discuss each poem in our reader's workshop block, before  I use them as writing models for my students. That's imperative!  

I love using Carl Sandburg's poem "Telephone Wire" for teaching personification. After we've unpacked our thinking about it, we start to notice how he has structured the poem. I give each student a key. I've collected stray keys for years and keep them on a huge ring in my desk.                                                                       We brainstorm. What features does my key have? Is that hole an eye? Are the jagged edges teeth? Does my key open doors or diaries? Does it lock things? What does it keep secret? What would my key say if it could talk. 

We fill our white board with tons of ideas about the purpose of our keys. Then, we each choose one of those ideas, and brainstorm vocabulary that would be associated with that particular idea. For example, I might choose "diary." Some of the words I associate with diary might be: Glittery, lock, lined pages, secrets, crushes, best friend fights, mad at my mother. Then, I begin to write a poem for my students, making sure that I talk about the structure of Sandburg's poem as I try to craft my own. 

Check out the some of my students' efforts! 

When I teach metaphor, I love to share Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son." We talk about how a staircase can be a metaphor for life. We explore the meaning behind the images. Fourth and fifth grade students can "get" this poem. It also gives us a glimpse at how writers use dialect in their writing. Again, we take note of the structure Hughes uses.                                                                      We brainstorm again. If we were going to offer advice to someone, who would we offer it to and what would that advice be? We create a list of ideas on the white board. One side is who we might write our poems to, and the other side is the advice we would offer. The kids LOVE this lesson. Check out their poems below!

Poetry can be found in the mundane happenings of life. One of my favorite poetry lessons uses "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams. After we discuss it and explore the poem's structure, we think of all the things we'd rather say in a note to someone than in person. Kids come up with the coolest ideas. Check out their list:
  1. Why I didn't clean my room.
  2. That I broke my dad's hammer.
  3. I broke the window with my baseball, accidentally.
  4. I cut Barbie's hair off (my sister was really mad).
  5. I found my mom's chocolate stash.
  6. I tangled my dad's fishing pole in the tree.
  7. I broke my mom's vase.
  8. I ate the frosting off of one side of the birthday cake.
  9. I didn't brush my teeth.
Their guilty confessions are hysterical and a window into their childhoods. I don't have any student examples from this lesson, but you can check out the poem I wrote with them as a model!

I could write and write about using poetry in my classroom (in fact, I have). It truly is one of my life-long passions. Poetry teaches us what it means to be human, and it helps us recognize and empathize with other people's humanity. Try reading an 800 year old haiku by Issa, Basho, or Buson. To me, the thrill is realizing that their realities were not unlike mine today. And that connects us...that connects us all.

This week, our We Teach So Hard podcast episode is all about ideas for National Poetry Month. Stop by an give us a listen. Just click on the picture to access!

We've gathered a wealth of poetry ideas for your classroom. Visit below!

Striving & Thriving: Remembering Purpose in the Reading Classroom

We sat huddled around our small table. We were delving into Rules by Cynthia Lord. Charlotte hunched over her book. Mya absentmindedly twirled her poker-straight red hair, and Bella's nose was so close to the page that she looked cross-eyed...the price one pays when one forgets her glasses. Aiden sat on his knees and bounced up and down as he read. 

We were at that chapter, that chapter in all good books where you can feel the characters shift, and it feels like the electrical charge that hangs in the air right before a thunderstorm.

Catherine, the main character, forgets to care about what others think and wheels Jason in his wheelchair out to the parking lot. He has just revealed that he sometimes wishes he would die. She describes the boundless freedom that is running, and he asks her to show him. She runs through the parking lot as fast as she can while pushing his wheelchair while he demands that she run faster.

As I read aloud, I can feel the knot forming in the back of my throat, and I think, "Oh damn. Here I go again. I'm gonna cry in front of them. Again." My voice tightens, and my students shift forward in their seats. Aiden's butt finally hits the seat of his chair and stays there. Mya's hand snakes out to the counter behind her and grabs the tissue box and nudges it toward me. They are patient with me. By now they know that good books can have powerful effects on readers, and that their teacher is a crybaby. 

Together, they theorize that I'm crying because I'm happy. Catherine has helped Jason, and as Aiden says, "Jason's helping Catherine remember what's important. And it's not what everyone else thinks." This from the boy, who at the beginning of the year, spent more time shopping for books than reading them. As I listen to each of my readers interact with the chapter, my nerdy reading teacher heart swells with pride, and the tears in my eyes become more about them than Catherine and Jason. 

This weekend, I've been with "my people" at the Michigan Reading Association Conference. I've swooned in the presence of Stephanie Harvey, but drew the line at asking her to sign my chest (Wink, wink. She signed a copy of her book for me instead). Pernille Ripp made my heart skip a beat when she said, "It is time for us to become reading warriors." And I basked in the glow of Donalyn Miller's brilliance as she signed her newest masterpiece. 

Everywhere I went this weekend, I heard the same messages: 
  1. Reading is about behaviors, not abilities. 
  2. In order for students to be motivated and engaged readers, they must value reading. In order for them to value reading, there must be collaboration, choice, relevance and meaningful purpose. 
  3. Our students must have access to texts, and those texts must be culturally relevant.  

It's as if all my teaching heroes skyped with each other before they came to present, and they agreed upon common messages. 

The funny thing is, when I left school on Friday to attend this conference, I was in the foulest mood. I felt drained and cranky, and my famously brutal teacher self talk had kicked in. I bet you know what I'm talking about. 

"You suck."

"You're not doing anything well."

"You're not doing enough."

"Maybe Starbucks will hire you."

But when I attend conferences, there are so many windows and mirrors. There are presenters who hold a mirror up for me so I can glimpse myself and my practice and realize that I'm on track. And, there are those presenters that take me to the window to appreciate a new landscape of pedagogy.  The opportunity to reflect is priceless. 

Without it, I would forget about Friday afternoon moments like this:

 "Ms. Willis! We didn't do First Chapter Fridays today. Can we do it on Monday? I need a new book!" Aiden calls out. 

My butt-in-the-air striving reader is beginning to thrive. 

When I remember to pay attention, I am amazed.

This month, I'm linking up with other fab educators. Visit them below!

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