Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration
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Lost in Space: Mother's Day Without Mom

Grief does not change reveals you.
                                                                                             ---John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

It is Mother's Day. This is not the first Mother's Day without her.  It's the second.  And as the oldest child who consistently believes she has control over the chaos that swirls around her,  I have believed that I was over the awful speed bump of the first.  I had squared my shoulders all week, prepared to meet today.  I don't have children myself, so my Mother's Days have all orbited around my mom. Except that now they don't.  And I can imagine what it would be like to be a planet (let's say Venus, because who hasn't wanted to be a goddess of love at some point in her life?) and the sun has just simply disappeared. The pull of gravity is still there--- the residue of star dust, but I don't know why I'm orbiting anymore... kind of like that cheesy 70s show "Lost in Space."

Most often, our moms are our first teachers. Mine was. I entered into a world of song, and my mom's big soprano voice filled that world.  From it, I learned the do's and don'ts of living. I learned what it means to be a woman from my mom, and I learned from her mistakes, too. But since her death almost a year and a half ago, my mind boggles from the lessons I've realized.  I was unprepared for those lessons.  I didn't expect them.  They shock me. They leave me breathless, at times.

So on this second Mother's Day without her, I have to share:

  1. Your mind IS a beautiful, gorgeous entity. You may not realize this until you fear losing it to disease. Spend some time decorating it and less time caring about the jelly doughnut you just ate.
  2. It's okay to be like your mom. There's also free will. You can choose to emulate the parts that you love and adore.  None of us are saints.
  3. Do not wait. Don't do it. Take the trip. Buy the shoes. Drink the sangria. Now.
  4. If you still have your mom, spend some time covertly watching her. Watch what makes her face light up. Watch what makes her sad. Ask her about herself. She's more than just a mom. 
  5. If you've lost your mom, like me. Do some archaeological excavating through the family photos. Look for the old ones.  Try to organize your memories. Appreciate.
  6. Take care of yourself. Go to the doctor appointments. MAKE THE DOCTOR APPOINTMENTS. It's a loving thing to do for your family. They will worry less.
  7. Think about your happiest times with her. What made them happy?  If you could strip away all the stress of life with or without your mom, what happiness would be left? 
  8. Age well. That means saying "F-you" to naysayers sometimes. 
  9. Ask "Why not me?" more often. And just say "No" sometimes.
  10. Stand up straight and fill the space you take up with your vibrancy. Remember who you are.

My mom's story is filled with love and heartbreak. Just as yours is. Just as mine is.  My mom was the third generation of her family to fight Alzheimer's Disease, and she was robbed of so much living. None of us have any guarantees. I miss her so much. One of the best ways to honor our moms is to LIVE the lives they gave us with wild abandon.  This isn't a dress rehearsal.  Happy Mother's Day.

Walking the Red Carpet with Book-of-the-Year Awards, Part 1 + a freebie!

Every year at the end of the school year, my students and I hold an election. We review the major mentor texts that we read over the entire school year. We discuss them. We share our opinions about our favorites and our least favorites.  Then, we vote to elect our Book-of-the-Year for room 9. This year, I decided to ramp it up a bit. As part of our developing culture of thinking, I wanted my students to delve more deeply into our year and the texts we read together.

The Brainstorm

Raise your hand if some of the best teaching ideas you've had occur at the oddest times. This happens to me constantly.  This one was no different.  As I bent over my piece-of-crap lawn mower to pull the cord yet again,  the obscenities clouding my mind parted, and I was struck by an image of my students creating a huge mind map about all ten of our mentor texts.  I saw them drawing arrows to and from text titles to show connections.  I saw them writing and talking about their connections. Then I imagined them writing an opinion piece to defend their choices for the Book-of-the-Year Award.  After I put the lawn mower back in my garage (it never did start---I had killed yet another mower), I sat down at my kitchen table to continue daydreaming. 

Before you read any farther, please know that this "new idea" is just now being explored in my classroom.  This post is not a "Hey! Look what we did!" kind of post.  We are in process.  This week, I began by placing a huge sheet of butcher paper on the floor.  On it, I wrote the titles of each major mentor text we had read over the year.  The titles include: Perloo the Bold, Tuck Everlasting, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Pictures of Hollis Woods, Bridge to Terabithia, The Poetry of Langston Hughes, Coming Home, My Brother Sam Is Dead, Between the Lines, and A Long Walk to Water.

We sat on the floor, surrounding the butcher paper and revisited each text. Our discussions focused on the characters and the themes we thought were important in each text.  Just as I had imagined, my students began to find connections between the texts.  This delighted me. Want to know why? Because many of the connections weren't intentional, and yet as they thought through the entire year, they could see themes and important ideas as common threads. 

I ended this discussion by asking students to choose one mentor text that they wanted to nominate for our Book-of-the-Year Award. Surprisingly, every book was chosen by at least one student.  They returned to their seats to do a flash write about their choices.

What's Next?

This week, I'm really excited about our next steps.  Students will begin to review persuasive writing goals by writing a short persuasive essay about their book nomination.  We've been studying bias in text and discussing how authors use words in certain ways to convince or rile up their readers around a product or cause.  We will be learning to do this in our writing this week!  

We will also be completing our floor-sized mind map about the texts and their connections.  I plan to leave this out in the back of my classroom for students to add to on their own, during our independent reading block.  This will be a huge discussion piece for the end of the week. 

After my kids have written their persuasive nominations, they'll practice reading them using whisper phones in order to be less dependent on their texts when they orally defend their choices.  By the last week of May, we will be presenting our nominations, walking the red carpet with our nominations and voting! Be sure to check back for the update next week!

This week, I'm offering something special for my readers and teacher friends!

Until then, check out the free resource below. It's a sample from the larger collection of resources I'm developing and using to complete our "Red Carpet Awards" project.  The larger resource will be available next Sunday, May 21st.  This week, I'm offering something special for my readers and teacher friends! Download the free sample below and leave feedback.  If you're one of the first 5 to leave feedback and comment on this post OR email me, I will GIVE you the FULL RESOURCE, FREE!

This week, you might also want to touch base with these amazing Teacher Talk authors.  This month's posts are packed full of end-of-year goodness!


The 3 Es Blogging Collaborative & Featured Author and Guest Blogger, Claudia Whitsitt

DRUM ROLL, PLEASE!  This month, as part of the 3E's Blogging Collaborative, we welcome youth and adult fiction author Claudia Whitsitt to our collaborative. Welcome, Claudia!


Studies have long shown that reading is a great healer, but those of us who read already know that. We don't need a study to recognize how quickly our stress levels drop when we delve into a story or to understand that avid readers maintain active brains and remain healthier the longer they live. Reading is the gift that keeps on giving. 

As I talk to students throughout the year, I'm continually amazed at their insight and understanding of the human experience. I focus on the holes we have in our hearts, invisible though they may be, and how we can help each other to heal by treating each other with respect and kindness. This idea came out of Between the Lines, the first book in the Kids Like You series, which focuses on racism and prejudice in the sixties. Writing this book for middle grade students took me back to my early reading days and the reasons I became an enthusiastic reader at such an early age.  

When I share my version of the "Holes in the Fence" with students, even at the tender ages of nine and ten, they recognize what it's like to have a hole in their heart. They tell me that wounds of the heart may never heal, although they may live to a ripe old age. While the wounds may scab over, kids also recognize how easily a memory or trigger can reopen them. The bottom line is this—we've all suffered loss and pain, no matter our age, but the holes that live in our hearts are invisible to all we meet. We don't "wear our hearts on our sleeves" each moment of every day, but in the same sense, we know how painful the wounds can be, because each of us has lived with pain.  

No one bugs me when I'm reading.

At a recent school visit, few students attended first hour, having parents who are too busy sleeping in from a late night with drugs or alcohol to make sure their kids eat a healthy breakfast, are dressed properly, or kissed goodbye when they head out to class. When those kids finally arrived, we talked about why they love reading. Some common answers were "No one bugs me when I'm reading," and "I can hide in my room and read. It's quiet after everyone is in bed." Escaping from the chaos of their lives, learning to solve problems in different ways, seeing examples of courage and identifying with characters gives these kids hope, helps them develop empathy, and allows them to envision a life beyond the troubled walls of their birth families.  

Art is the nearest thing to life...
                                                           ---George Elliot 

As children, we are often drawn to reading for the simple reason that we love stories. Stories pull us out of our lives and into the lives of others. From characters, we learn to overcome struggles, to display courage in the face of fear, to laugh, to cry, to root for characters that have become our friends. "Mirror neurons" develop—neurons that fire in our brains as if we performed an action ourselves. When we immerse ourselves in a character's world, we develop empathy. Reading soon becomes self-medication. Not just a Band-Aid, but as George Elliot, an English novelist believed, "art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot."  

When we teach kids to read, we also demonstrate how to become well-rounded human beings who believe in the strength and value of each individual, as well as give them the gift of lifetime healing. We teach kids to crave equity, for themselves and others. By offering them stories of survival, overcoming obstacles and facing fear, we empower kids to be courageous. 

Readers are more self-reliant individuals. They become better citizens, deeper thinkers and happier, less wounded people. I can't think of a better way to support our future leaders than to teach them to read. 

Claudia Whitsitt is a former educator and the award-winning author of the Kids Like You series. Between the Lines, Beyond the Lines and Broken Lines teach many lessons, prompting readers to think about the value of friendship, equality, and tolerance. If you would like her to visit your school, you can find information by clicking HERE.

Continue to join in the conversation by reading about more thought-provoking ideas and resources below. Join us!

Finding Our Way Between the Lines: Courageous Conversations About Racism

 And then the realtor told my parents to make our house look less black so it would sell faster and they'd get what it is worth.
                              --- "John," a fifth grade student

There was an audible gasp from surrounding students. And one of my blonde-haired, blue-eyed students asked in disbelief, "Wait---What? Why?" John replied, "Yeah, really. That really did happen."

My classroom exploded into chatter, into upset, into a barrage of questions. I sat quietly for a few seconds before I intervened,  letting my students talk. I was about to learn something from my students. I could feel it, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. 

How We Got There

I sometimes work with a Civitan group in the town where I live. The Civitans are service groups that can be found all over the United States. This particular Civitan group focuses on funding and supporting literacy projects in our schools.  Peg, our fearless leader, gave me a book at the beginning of the school year.  She explained that the author of the book would be the guest speaker at our annual Literacy Tea, our major fundraiser of the year.  She thought it was a good fit for fifth graders.  I thanked her and put it on my teaching shelf for later in the year.

Flash forward, through countless mentor texts about leadership, common good, and acceptance, to February and Black History Month.  In January, I had taken the book home to read.  From the first chapter I was sold, and I knew this would be our next mentor text.  Between the Lines, by Claudia Whitsitt, became the vehicle that facilitated our courageous conversations.

 Setting the Stage

Our exploration into civil rights began with Langston Hughes' poems.  You can read more about our beginning here.  We read a number of his dream poems, and then we read "Daybreak in Alabama."  I chose to begin our book study this way because I wanted to develop my students' schema.  We read "Daybreak in Alabama" deeply, using visible thinking and CLOSE reading routines.  We watched footage of the Selma March and listened to Dr. King's speech. We read about Bloody Sunday.  We thought about these things symbolically and actually created symbols to sum up our thoughts about the poem and the march to Selma. 

Beginning the Book

After building our prior knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement, we were ready to begin reading Between the Lines by Claudia Whitsitt. This first chapter opens with the main character, Hattie, excitedly preparing for her birthday party, only to find out that the Detroit riots have exploded.  Her party is cancelled as her family goes on "lock down" as the fighting around her escalates. This prompted us to research the Detroit riots of the '60s. Students' initial reactions to Hattie's upset about her party was that she was selfish.

However, as the character develops and deepens, so did my students' understanding and thinking about her. Hattie's family moves out of Detroit, and she experiences public school for the first time.  There, she meets two friends... "Crackers," a white girl who is a tomboy, and Beverly Jo, her first black friend. What unfolds is Hattie's struggle to maintain her friendship with Beverly in the face of some parental resistance, a teacher's bigotry, and her peers' racism.  As Hattie finds her way, respecting the adults around her while doing what she feels is right, my students' conversations about race bubbled to the surface.

The Tough Stuff

As we progressed through Hattie's story, we read about classmates calling Beverly a nigger.  We read about Hattie being called a nigger lover. We read about a teacher,  adored by the three friends, who wrote a cruel note about Beverly and then had her deliver it to another teacher.  We read about Beverly's crushed spirit.  We read about Hattie's "war" with her mother and her struggle to understand her mother's fears.  We read about Cracker's bravado as she deals with her dad's issues. We began to ask questions:
  1. What is racism?
  2. What causes a person to be a racist?
  3. How can we make a difference in our world?
  4. What is it like to be a minority?
And these questions led us to John's confession: "The realtor told my parents to make our house look less black..." My students and I talked and talked.  They decided that racism is when people respond to or treat others differently from others based on their race, culture, or religion.  Early on, my students commented on Hattie's mom's fears.  She feared what neighbors would think. She feared for Hattie's safety.  She feared black people.  We talked a great deal about how we all fear differences... some times those differences have to do with religion, race, culture, or gender. Other times, those fears are about more mundane life experiences.  

They began to wonder if racism is based in fear. This led to some current event connections about immigrants.  And so, they wondered about the fear that is expressed in the United States right now. 

One of the over-arching themes in Between the Lines is Hattie's altruism.  She wants to make the world a better place.  She grapples with how to do this on an almost daily basis.  She has an uncommon awareness of the mixed messages she is receiving from her parents, her grandmother, her peers, her teacher, her church, and the community and society around her.  We asked ourselves, "How do we make the world a better place?"

Safety & the Vicarious Experience

 Between the Lines and books like it provide a safe place for students to discuss hard issues, because we can live and learn vicariously through the characters' experiences.  My black students talked about some of their experiences. My other students sat in shock. They listened. They questioned.  They had no idea.  Why would they? They are not black.  This book created two spaces in my classroom: A space for my black students to share their realities, and a space for my other students to listen and discover.  It also led to conversations about other prejudices...those toward Chaldeans, Muslims, developmentally disabled, and on and on. My students with immigrant experiences began to speak up, too. We also talked and talked about what it means to "stand up" for someone.  How do we support someone who is being bullied or picked on? 

The Side-Effects

Our conversations about racism and the world are ongoing.  We've recently begun to read about the Flint water crisis while we're also reading A Long Walk to Water.  We are talking about author bias and several students have begun to ask questions about how people around the world get their water.  Some of the questions they are asking go back to economics, politics, and race. Perhaps what is most exciting to me is that they are asking these questions on their own. And I truly believe that this type of questioning began because of Between the Lines.

We celebrated our reading of Between the Lines in a very special way.  Remember that Civitan group and their Literacy Tea? Well, they invited my class to attend in order to meet the author!  Part of the Literacy Tea is that Civitan hosts design tables around books. Guests view and vote on the tables. Prizes are awarded and raffles are conducted.  The featured author speaks.  

We collectively decided that we wanted to design our table to represent all of our thinking about the march to Selma, "Daybreak in Alabama," and Between the Lines.  Students went online to pull images of civil rights demonstrations.  Others drew the main characters of the novel and mounted them on foam core board.  A group of engineers built a model of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  We use our "Daybreak" symbols as placemats.  Other students pulled excerpts from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and some pulled excerpts from the novel. They typed these and placed them on the table as well.

After much anticipation and planning, the night arrived. My students met Claudia Whitsitt and her two friends on which the other characters of Crackers and Beverly were based!  We were high as kites for the rest of the week. I don't think my students will ever forget that night or how Ms. Whitsitt responded to their questions about her characters, her experiences, and her writing practice.

It Isn't Easy

It takes courage to talk to our kids about racism and prejudice. It can even be a fearful thing to discuss current events. I don't know if our conversations would have been as safe or as deep without the support of literature. But I wonder, if not us...than who? Who will facilitate the courageous conversations? Because what I learned from kids this year is this: They are listening. They are watching. They are waiting for an opportunity to talk and question.    

Please feel free to use this free resource for facilitating conversations about civil rights by clicking the picture below:

This week's post is a 3Es Blogging Collaborative post.  We have some thought-provoking ideas and resources for you this month, along with a guest post from author CLAUDIA WHITSITT. Please visit!

Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume? Developing Culture with Lab Classrooms

                                 "Dr. Frankenstein?"
                                 "You're putting me on!"

                                 "You must be Eegor."
                                 "No, it's Igor."
                                 "But they told me it was Eegor."
                                 "Well they were wrong then, weren't they?"

The words "lab classroom" never fail to conjure up images of crazy-haired Gene Wilder and boggle-eyed Marty Feldman in the opening scenes of "Young Frankenstein." I imagine myself in a white lab coat, wearing glasses that make my eyes appear 10 times larger than they really are...and my students tethered to numerous scientific experiments, calmed only by the strains of "Puff the Magic Dragon" played on my ukulele.  In fact, I'm giggling to myself as I sit here typing these words.

Pedagogy Is a Science

All kidding aside, pedagogy is "the art, science or profession of teaching" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).  Sometimes, it does feel like "MAD science," as we race around implementing procedures and techniques that have very little basis in the real science of educational research.  Some days, I do look a little like Gene Wilder. Other days, I think I channel Marty Feldman.

My staff has been on a journey over the last two years.  We've begun delving into the work of Harvard's Project Zero, and we've chosen to examine Ron Ritchart's Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools and its implications for us as a community of learners. We began this journey by reading Making Thinking Visible (Church, Morrison & Ritchart). This year, we've waded into the deep end of this inquiry. 

One thing that became apparent in our learning is that we are really good at talking about data...REALLY good. We examine it. We know where our students are in their learning. We know who needs to be pushed. We know who needs remediation.  However, we seldom talk about the how. How do we push this child? How do we help that child? In our PLTs, we seldom discuss pedagogy.

Dr. Frankenstein Has Entered The Room

We want pedagogical conversations to occur naturally.  And on some level, they used to before the content of team meetings became so heavily monitored or dictated. So in order to shift our staff culture, we scheduled two lab classroom days.

What are lab classrooms?  In our building, lab classroom days are when staff members, who have agreed to open up their practice to their peers, teach a 45 minute lesson in front of 4-5 colleagues. Within the lesson, the host teacher is using a thinking routine embedded in the lesson. Colleagues are there to observe, not participate or interact with the students. After the lesson, the host teacher leaves the classroom (a substitute or another staff member provides coverage) with the observing colleagues for a 30 minute debriefing session.

The debriefing session is highly structured and requires the host and observing colleagues to reflect on the moves the teacher used to encourage student thinking and the evidence of student thinking during the lesson. Another staff member or in our case, a staff development teacher or coach leads the debriefing session.  

During the debrief, participants are not allowed to make judgement statements...this includes PRAISE.  Not praising a colleague is perhaps the hardest part of the debrief.  The purpose of it is to focus solely on the what was observed and the evidence of thought.  The minute we start to praise, objectivity goes out the window. On our lab classroom days, we secure 4 substitute teachers who travel throughout the day to cover staff members who are observing.  We have five teachers who volunteer to teach lessons using thinking routines, and then we schedule the rest of our staff in groups of 4 or 5 to observe those teachers.

When You Put The Lab Coat On...

I volunteered for the first day of lab classrooms, since I had facilitated them as a coach in years past, I felt more comfortable in sticking my neck out.  I chose to model a thinking routine that was new to my students, because I thought that watching a teacher "unpack" a new routine might be beneficial for my colleagues.  I chose Claim-Support-Question.

We had 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.  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. 

At this point, I had to leave with my observing colleagues and a substitute took over. But before I did, I asked my students to talk to me about their thoughts about the new thinking routine and the type of thinking they believed they engaged in... in other words, I asked my students to engage in some metacognition.  They did not disappoint. Using Project Zero's Circle of Understanding, my students engaged in a lively debate about uncovering complexity and reasoning with evidence.  Then, my students continued the investigation without me.

Mad Science Without The Crazies

The debrief of my lesson was fun.  The lack of praise was weirdly awesome.  Here's why: When people praise me, I am uncomfortable.  Sometimes, I distrust what they say.  Often times, I feel embarrassed.  In the debriefing session, I heard specific feedback.  I heard my colleagues comment on the amount of scaffolding I used to introduce a new thinking routine.  I listened to feedback about differentiation and how I utilize the Circle of Understanding in my classroom.  I swelled with pride as they named and noticed evidence of student thinking and depth of student thinking.  All of this without, "You did a good job when..." Afterward, I walked out feeling six inches taller, and I had some new pedagogical targets to chew on for upcoming lessons.

Shifting Culture

We have a long way to go in our learning community.  Don't we always?  That's the nature of being a community learners: CHANGE. That being said, I've noticed three shifts as a result of our lab classrooms.
  1. More of us are talking about our classroom practices more often. 
  2. These discussions have an inquiry-like tone.
  3. Our conversations and reflections have deepened, and we are asking more questions about our practices.

Ohhhhhh, Sweet Mystery of Life

"Ohhhh, sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you..." Madeline Kahn rocked that song at the end of "Young Frankenstein," didn't she? Change has begun in our learning community because of lab classroom experiences.  It's exciting to see what happens when teachers take control of their own learning and protocols are implemented that promote a safe sharing environment.

When I returned to my classroom, my students showed me their questions. They 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?
They connected the inquiry to our past units of math study! "Ohhhhh, sweet mystery of life! At last, I found you!"


If you'd like a copy of the inquiry math lesson I taught during my lab classroom experience, click the picture below.

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

Until next time, teach on!
P.S. Come back next week! It's 3 E's Blogging Collaborative Week and there'll be free goodies!