Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration
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Poetry & Descriptive Reading and Writing: .A Teacher's Story of How "Fluff" Led to Rigor

Eons and eons ago in my teaching career, a colleague once said to me, "I don't know how you find time to get to that fluff." Even now, the words still slap, and my face burns with the memory. I had been teaching poetry in reader's workshop and my students had used choreography to express their thinking and understanding of the poems they were reading. 

They performed their poems for each other and their parents, but more importantly, their choreography became a means of discussing the complex texts they were reading. At the time, I was using this as an action research project for a teacher leadership academy in which I was participating. I was diligently tracking my students' implicit understanding of poetic text. In the end, I found that my atypical teaching approach hugely impacted my ELL and special education students. Their scores jumped. 

And yet...

Poetry was fluff. 

It still stings.

The writer uses descriptive language to show how scared and nervous Jill is. Give some examples from the book.
                           -Level R, "The Election," Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System

I was giving my last Fountas & Pinnell reading assessment in the first round of assessing for the school year. Like Pavlov's dog that salivated every time the bell was rung, I reflexively braced myself for my student's answer. Some form of this question appears at almost every level of the fiction assessments, and my students were falling down...HARD. 

They don't know what descriptive language is...

This realization hurt my heart. Maybe it's because of our obsessive focus on non-fiction text? Maybe it's because we only teach poetry in April? Maybe it's because we don't talk to each other the way we used to before digital age? I'm not sure, but it's a trend that is alarming. I've noticed it over the last five years. Our students don't have the language to describe things, and they don't have the ability to recognize descriptive language. 

Has anyone seen my box of fluff? 

The concept of Found Poetry has always fascinated me. I love the idea of taking prose, noticing the beauty of the language, and recycling it into poetry. I think of it as word ecology...where every day could be Earth Day in reader's and writer's workshops!  Using prose to write poetry addressed both of my students' needs:
  1. Noticing and thinking about descriptive language in text.
  2. Using descriptive text to improve elaboration and writer's craft in writer's workshop.
We started by using a fun website that I had discovered that took familiar patriotic songs and taught students how to create new poems from the lyrics they "found" in the original song. You can find it HERE. I did this because I wanted my students to get the gist of what we would be doing before we used our own texts. 

Then, I dusted off our picture book texts.  I took a hard look at the picture books we were reading together. I had recently read Appelemando's Dreams by Patricia Polacco and Imagine by Bart Vivian.  Both texts are about daydreaming and the power of imagination. I pulled an excerpt from Polacco's text: 

And I pulled the text from Bart Vivian's book:

I tried to use description-rich passages. We reread the passages together, and then we read them again. Students highlighted sentences and phrases that stood out to them. 

I asked them to explain what had made them choose the words they did, and our conversation exploded. They reported that the words they zoomed in on actually helped them visualize what they were reading. This is exactly what I wanted. From there, I was able to again teach descriptive language. We discussed our favorite phrases.

Then, they took the phrases and sentences apart until they had a list of words.  I taught them to add words that we commonly use (conjunctions, articles, prepositions, pronouns) to their lists. 

Then we began our Found Poetry. We arranged our words just as we did on the website. The results were beautiful, but more importantly my kiddos had a better understanding of what descriptive language is, why it's important to zoom in on as a reader, and why writer's use it. 

One of best thing about this approach was watching my students use descriptive language in their own writing. ,They were successful because they were supported and could use the "inspired language" from an author's text. This approach is especially fantastic for my ELL students. In doing so, they were able to make it their own. Exciting stuff! 

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
                                                                          -Emily Dickinson

If you're interested in trying a "Found Poetry" approach with your students, or maybe just diving into more reading or writing of poetry, visit the links below by just clicking on the pictures (one is free)!

This week, I've linked up with some inspiring educators for our monthly Teacher Talk. Visit their posts below!

Writer's Workshop: Free-Write Fridays

I've wanted to be a writer since seventh grade.  Before seventh grade, writing felt long and laborious. I remember being made to keep a daily journal in sixth grade. That assignment was laughable. My peers and I were at that ugly and brutal age where girls moon over the boys and write about crushes and each other. Boys wrote about who was cute...and who wasn't. 

Then there was the time my frenemy stole my journal and passed it around for all to read. I can still see the look on her face, triumphant and sneering. Don't worry. I had my revenge. I had to write 200 sentences, "I will keep my hands to myself," but she never did it again. 

Beyond basic conventions lessons, I don't remember ever being taught how to write. But then in seventh grade, I had a teacher who gave us choice.  Suddenly, I could write poetry or a research report on Pompeii. I could write short stories and plays. There still wasn't a lot of direct writing instruction, but I was given choice for the first time ever, and it rocked my world. 

Choice...a little word with such big possibilities. 

I think that the writing is important. We want to encourage a lot of low stakes writing, and by low stakes, I mean writing where they're not being graded, corrected, assessed. Nobody's casting a critical eye on them, but they're using writing as a way to think loud and push their thinking on writing.
                                                                     -Ralph Fletcher

As a classroom teacher, there are two practices I've added to my writer's workshop that are game changers. Both hinge on students having choice and low stakes writing opportunities. 

Free-Choice Fridays

In my school district, we use writing units developed by our ISD. Our units are designed for a workshop approach and influenced by Lucy Calkins' work. Students have choice of topic throughout our units of study (memoir, nonfiction writing, persuasive essay, literary essay, and a research writing unit). However, I wanted to give my students a chance to have choice over genre, so I implemented free-write Fridays. One of the reasons I did this was that I wanted to my students to apply the learning we did in our writing units to their independent writing. 

I wanted my students to think and make decisions like writers. It wasn't that they weren't doing this in our unit lessons, but they needed to see that those skills transfer, regardless of the genre. When I tell my students that they can write whatever they want, their faces light up. "Whatever we want?" they ask, in disbelief. Since I began free-write Fridays, I've read student-authored comic strips, sportscasts, poems, plays, reader's theaters, fantasy fiction and informational books about mummies and mythological beasts, songs, and on and on and on. When given choice, my kids rise to the occasion. And guess what? They take their writer's notebooks home to work on their free-writes throughout the week, again by choice. 
Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up."
                                                                               -Jane Yolen

We begin our free-write session with small group sharing. I arrange my students into groups of 4 or 5 students. During this time, students read their work to each other. I've taught them to ask for specific feedback. For example, before I read my writing, I might ask my group to pay attention to my descriptions. Are they strong enough? Then, I read my writing or a passage from it, and they give me feedback. I make notes while they give me feedback. After the share session, which is about 15-20 minutes long, then we write independently. I confer with my writers at that time and have craft conversations with them. 

Which leads me to the second practice I implement during free-write Fridays: I write with my students. I bring my writer's notebook to school. I ask them for their feedback when I share, and I ask for their criticism. I make myself a participant and use that role to model my thinking about my writing. 

Recently, I shared some chapters of a juvenile fantasy fiction novel that I'm writing. I told them I was struggling with the villain character. I didn't want the villain to be human because it was set in an alternative world, but the I didn't want to vilify the animal characters. My kids helped me solve my writing conundrum, but more importantly, the conversations they had about fantasy books they had read and the decisions various authors had made in their writing were thoughtful and inspiring. They were helping out a fellow  

Teaching writing is probably one of the hardest subjects to teach because it demands complexity from the teacher and the students. It takes planning, talking, debating, knowing when to support and when to back off, but it is also one of the most rewarding skills to teach.

Free-write Fridays has been one of the most effective ways I've found to motivate my writers. 

If you're looking for workshop materials to support your teaching, click the pictures below!

Reasoning with Evidence & Persuasive Thinking

I cannot live without brain work. What else is there to live for?
                                                                                                     -Sherlock Holmes

This past week, I brought out my Sherlock Holmes hat. I have a number of hats, funky glasses, and feathered boas that I use while teaching, but my Sherlock Holmes hat is my favorite. In room 13, we've been talking about evidence. We began our persuasive essay in writer's workshop. We've been writing theories about the main characters in our book group novels and mentor text for reader's workshop. We've been working on a smart goal that requires that we quote evidence directly from a text to support our thinking. Our need for evidence is everywhere

However, I didn't dust off my Sherlock hat for those endeavors! I saved it for our exponents investigation!  One of my favorite thinking routines to use is Claim-Support-Question. We've been studying powers of ten in our math workshop, so I came up with the question, "Do other multiplication patterns exist when we use exponents with other numbers?"

I began my lesson by introducing the Claim-Support-Question Routine. Using a slide show that I had created, we discussed the words "claim" and "support."  I asked students my math question, and then sent them back to their table groups to discuss it and write a claim statement on their table's chart paper.

After they had written their claims, they returned to the carpet to report out to the whole groups.  Then, we talked about how we might support our claims.  What procedures might they follow? They returned to their tables to investigate. 

This was fun to watch. All groups, except one, claimed that there would be patterns. Most explained that the data and patterns we had collected and noticed in our powers of 10 work had informed their claim-making process.  All groups chose a number and found the exponential products for that number up to an exponent of 10.  I allowed them to use calculators for this part, so it was more easily investigated.  We stopped briefly to remember that scientists and mathematicians want more than one set of data to prove a claim, and then groups continued to work with other numbers to triangulate their data. 

After making claims and supporting them with mathematical evidence, my students asked a number of questions, but two particular questions gave me goosebumps:
  1. If we multiply fractions exponentially, will there be patterns?
  2. If we multiply decimals exponentially, will there be patterns?
These questions turned into another math investigation. What happens when we multiply decimal numbers like 10.4 * 10.4 and 10.4 * 10.4 * 10.4? 

Next time, I want to use Claim-Support-Question to introduce powers of 10. I think it will help us observe and explore multiplication and division patterns. 

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance observes.
                                                                                                     -Sherlock Holmes

Sometimes, the best thing about being a teacher who blogs is that I discover new ideas while I'm reflecting and writing about my practice. Writing this blog post has done that for me! I'm dreaming up future applications for Claim-Support-Question. This week in writer's workshop, my students will be writing their claims for their persuasive essays. I can't think of a more perfect way for them to do this than by using this thinking routine. Using the thinking routine organizer I made, they will be able to plan out their writing and record their research that supports their claim. The question part of the of the routine could help them examine counter claims, and their possible responses to them. 

In reader's workshop, my students are going to use Claim-Support-Question to deepen their character theories. They'll make a claim about the character, support it with evidence from the text, and dig deeper into their thinking with more questioning. 

If you want to read more about Claim-Support-Question, Making Thinking Visible, and Project Zero's work with thinking routines, be sure to visit THIS website. 


If you'd like a copy of the inquiry math lesson I taught click the picture below.

You might also be interested in the these visible thinking resources:

OR these exponent and powers of ten resources(there's a freebie here!):

Consider entering the WE TEACH SO HARD podcast $100 giveaway! It's going on for one more week! You COULD win! Click the picture to enter. 

This week, I've teamed up with some fabulous teacher bloggers for November's Teacher Talk. Check them out below!

Teaching & Learning Gratitude: Book Suggestions For Thankfulness

The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking. It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.
                                                                                                      -Stanley Kunitz

I remember that I was wearing my scuffed mud-brown corrective shoes the day that Christine brought her birthday party invitations to school. I was wearing my ugly shoes because I had weak ankles and my knees turned in. Christine was wearing shiny red fashion boots. I longed for boots like Christine's. The year was 1976. I went to a small school, and I was the only girl in second grade. But my classroom was a 2/3 split class, so I was friends with all of the third grade girls. 

I watched Christine prance down the classroom aisles in her shiny red boots as she passed out her birthday party invitations like a Las Vegas poker dealer just starting her shift.  I couldn't wait! She came down my row, and I was already imagining what gift I wanted to buy her for her birthday. Then, she sashayed past me. No invitation.  I waited, thinking that she had mine on the bottom of her pile. But she didn't. 

I remember completing my stupid spelling book assignment while I choked back my tears. And my shit-brown shoes felt like lead weights. I was the only girl in my classroom who wasn't invited to Christine's birthday party, because I was in second grade and not third grade. 

It was the truly the first time that I realized I was different, and that somehow, I didn't fit in with the people I thought were my friends. I've never forgotten that feeling, ever. And as an adult, when I'm  rejected or odd man out, I still feel like that second grader in the ugly shoes. 

That day in second grade changed me. 

You are down there alone, the stars seemed to say to him. And we are up here, in our constellations, together.
                               -Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Like every other teacher in an elementary classroom in November, I've been thinking a lot about gratitude. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo is a powerful book for teaching about gratitude. Edward is an arrogant china rabbit who learns about love and gratitude as he experiences hardship and isolation on an eventful journey. Recently, I had the privilege of observing a colleague teach a lesson using ...Edward Tulane. Her third grade students talked about feeling hollow and alone when they lose someone or something that they loved. It occurred to me, that they were empathizing with Edward. And after they empathized, they expressed gratitude for their happy memories. One child even suggested that Edward was learning to be grateful.

Out of the mouths of babes...I'd never really thought about how empathy is connected to gratitude, but I think my 8 year old friends are right. When we put ourselves in each others' shoes, we remember what it's like to be a rejected second grader wearing clunky corrective shoes, and we choose to connect with each other, instead. And because of that shared experience, we feel gratitude. 

They packed the food in baskets and in each one, Babushka put one of her homemade Hanukkah candles. 'So they will have the light of God in their hearts...and so that God will protect them and make them well again.' she murmured."
                        -Patricia Polacco, The Trees of the Dancing Goats.

The Trees of the Dancing Goats, by Patricia Polacco, is another fantastic empathy/gratitude book to share with students. Patricia's family is Jewish. Their Christian neighbors and friends are very sick with scarlet fever. Her family uses their Hanukkah food and gifts to feed their sick neighbors and cheer them. Later, her neighbors return the favor by turning the Christmas ornaments Patricia's family had made into a menorah for her family. 

And we learn vicariously, that "different" doesn't have to mean isolated,  hated or despised. 

For days she walked, passing through more and more villages...There was unhappiness and helplessness everywhere. The world, she sadly realized, was not as she had though it was.
                  -Jeff Brumbeau & Gail de Marcken, The Quiltmaker's Journey

Last year, I wrote about using The Quiltmaker's Gift, also by Brumbeau and de Marcken, to teach about generosity. You can read about that HERE. The Quiltmaker's Journey is the prequel to that story. It describes the quiltmaker's girlhood in a Utopian world. Everyone is fed, clothed and perfect. The village elders tell the citizens to never venture outside the village gates because there are horrible monsters. The quiltmaker is curious though, so she sneaks out one night. She finds that there aren't any dragons or monsters, but people who are suffering. She is shocked and overwhelmed by their misery. She decides to take responsibility and make a change for those in need. This begins her story of empathy, generosity and gratitude. In The Quiltmaker's Gift, she continues her outreach and teaches an arrogant king about generosity and gratitude. 

Everyone has a responsibility to create a more inclusive society and challenge hateful rhetoric. The safety and well-being of our community depend on it.
           -Sabina Mohyuddin, The American Muslim Advisory Council

This past week, my heart broke again as I imagined what it would be like for my Jewish friends to send their children to their parochial schools the day after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. I imagined myself going to church on a Sunday morning, only to encounter a gunman rampaging in the sanctuary. And, I listened to my friend cry tears of relief that her uncle hid and miraculously survived the synagogue shooting, and then later grieve for the community's tragic losses. 

I don't think there can be a more perfect time to teach about empathy, gratitude and generosity. I think our lives depend on it. 

KEEP READING for some cool opportunities (free resources and a $100 gift card)! You might want to check out these resources 
for teaching gratitude, empathy, and generosity. 



This month, I've teamed up with my WE TEACH SO HARD podcast colleagues to offer a giveaway opportunity for our readers and listeners. We are grateful for you! To enter, click below!

Be sure to check out my WE TEACH SO HARD colleagues' posts below! They're offering some great ideas, suggestions and free resources, too! Our sincere wish is that your holiday be filled with opportunities for gratitude. 

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!