Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

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Once Upon a Time...Slaying Dragons & Story Problems

Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
                                                                           -Neil Gaiman, Coraline

I fought dragons nightly. At our kitchen table. I mentally donned my chain mail armor, strapped my trusty sword and scabbard to my side and prepared to do battle with the math textbook. There were different kinds of dragons on those long nights. There was the fraction dragon and the long division dragon, but the most terrifying of all was the story problem dragon. Despite my mental armor and weaponry, I was usually reduced to damsel-in-distress status because I dissolved into tears within ten minutes. 

Story problems still cause anxiety to ripple through me. I think most teachers feel that way. I know many students do, too. And if the problems are multi-step, I'd rather give up the fight and toast marshmallows in the dragon's fiery breath. With chocolate and graham crackers.

But then, I had an epiphany.  I was teaching fraction story problems when the reading teacher inside my head said, "You haven't taught the text structure."  I went home that night and began to plan for the next day.

When reading teachers teach about different types of text, they use mentor texts. Mentor texts are books, essays, poems, etc. in which the author has used structures, features, and traits that support the the teacher's lesson focus. In short, a mentor text is any text that models the reading or writing strategy that is being taught. I began to think about story problems as mentor texts. My students needed to learn how to read the text structures of story problems, and then they needed to learn how to write that same text structure. I believed that doing so would also improve their ability to tackle any story problem.

I wrote a collection of mentor texts for story problems. I currently work with fifth graders, so the problems I used are focused on fifth grade standards. I divided my students into small discussion groups of 3 or 4 and gave each group 3 mentor texts (story problems). While they read the texts, I asked them to use a thinking routine called See-Think-Wonder.  We had used this in other subjects before this lesson, so it was a well-known learning routine. 

My students began to read the story problems, and they jotted down their noticings. This is the "see" part of the routine. Here are some of their responses: 

  • I see numbers.
  • I notice that there are characters (people) in the problem.
  • I notice it says "altogether."
  • I notice it says "more."
  • I notice it uses clue words.
  • I see fractions. 
  • I see a beginning, middle and end.
  • I see that every one ends with a question mark. 
Then, they read them again and discussed what they thought about what they observed. 
I think we have to add in this one.
I think that the ending of a problem always asks a question.
I think that the first sentence is like a lead.
I notice that all 3 problems have three sentences.
 One of the things I began to notice in my students' responses is that some were focused on the mathematical thinking: "I think we have to add in this one." and "I see fractions."  Others were noticing how the texts were written. The distinction between the two types of thinking are important, because I believe they indicate differences in understanding. 

The last part of thinking routine is "wonder." What do your observations and thoughts make you wonder? I saw a big range of understanding in my students' questions, too. 
I wonder what the answer is.
I wonder if all story problems have 3 sentences.
I wonder if story problems are like mini stories.
After my kids had the opportunity to examine the mentor texts within their groups, they reported out to the whole group, and I charted their responses. Then I explained that while all of their observations were important, I wanted to focus on some specific ones. I highlighted all of their responses that had to do with how the story problems were constructed.

Out of their observations, we decided that story problems are a lot like stories. They have 3 parts: A beginning, a middle, and an end. Each one of those parts has a specific purpose for the reader/mathematician. My kids noticed that the beginning is written to introduce the mathematical situation. For example: Ayesha and Ben each started a dog walking business. 

The middle part of the story problem presents the mathematical information and tells even more about the situation. For example: Ayesha charged $5.00 per customer per day and was able to walk 6 dogs every day for one week, while Ben charged $6 per customer per day and walked 4 dogs every day for one week. 

They also noticed that the mathematical question was almost always asked at the end of the story problem. For example: Who made more money by the end of the week? 

After looking closely at how story problems are organized, we used what we discovered about them to discuss other problems that have different structure. Knowing the structure of a basic story problem helped us tackle harder ones. My students worked with a partner to write their own story problems. We analyzed these together. Finally, I returned their fraction story problems, and they tried again. Let's just say that dragons were slayed!

It's important for students to read and write like mathematicians. Recently, there have been many articles and books written about using reader's workshop structures in the math class. That's all well and good. However, it's not just about the workshop's about the type of thinking that a student does while reading and writing. Guess what? They need to do that type of thinking when they read and write in math! There should be a skill transfer, and if there isn't, then teachers need to facilitate those lessons. 

If you like what you read here, you might want to take a look at the materials I used for those lessons. You can find them by clicking on the picture.

In addition, I'm a featured author on Rachel Lynette's Minds in Bloom blog this week! There's more reading and writing like a mathematician goodness over there. Click HERE to read about ways to help your students write better math responses. 

I've teamed up with other teacher authors for Teacher Talk, a monthly blog link up filled with teaching ideas and goodies. Consider visiting them below!

A Good Book Can Start The Year Off Right!

I have a problem. It might not be apparent when you enter my classroom. I hide it well, behind innocent cabinet doors and colorful book baskets. I hoard books. I buy them and covet them and crave them. My classroom library is organized but bursting at the seams. My book cabinets are like suicide cupboards. I open them cautiously and ferret through them quickly before the shelves vomit them onto the floor. I can't help myself. Last year, a fifth grade student told me that I need an intervention. 

A room without books is like a body without a soul.
                                                                                                -Marcus Tullius Cicero

 My room has a lot of soul. I learned early on in my career that a good book can change my classroom world, create a paradigm shift, and cultivate respect, empathy, imagination and empowerment. I moved around a lot early in my career, so I needed to take those powerful books with me. I never stopped hoarding. Let me tell you about some of my back-to-school teaching treasures. 

At the beginning of each school year, I always look for THAT read aloud, the quintessential back-to-school book that inspires my students, and leads to good talk, writing or art.  One year, I found Imagine by Bart Vivian.

This short but gorgeous book is about taking the everyday stuff of life and imagining it to be something different.  Some illustrations turn a tree house into a castle.  Others are more about children dreaming about their futures...a girl watches the ballerina in her jewelry box and imagines herself on stage as a prima ballerina.  A boy sees a fire truck and imagines himself as a fireman rescuing someone from a burning building. 

The pattern of the book adds to the story. The real life  objects are in black and white.  Turn the page, and the dreams, wishes or fantasies are in full color.

I couldn't wait to share this book.  So on the second day of school, with my third and fourth graders on the carpet in front of me, we read it together.  We discussed the pattern of the book, the illustrations, and we cleared up vocabulary.  When we say the word dream,  it has multiple meanings.  So we talked about hopes and wishes and how they might be different from daydreams or fantasies.  Then, we talked about how all of these are different from the type of dreams we have when we're asleep. 

I gave each student a thought bubble which they covered with artwork about their hopes for their futures or their wishes for how their school year would go.   While students were creating, I took their pictures with my iPad. Another student helped me use a photo editing app to create a dream-like appearance.  All of that led to this:

My next back-to-school pick is a golden oldie...The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. Margaret Wise Brown is the author of early childhood classics like Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. First published in 1954, people often think of it as a primary read aloud, but I use it with older kids. It uses formulaic and poetic text to examine every day subjects more closely. Like this:

The important thing about the sky is that it is always there. It is true that it is blue, and high, and full of clouds, and made of air. But the important thing about the sky is that it is always there. 

We read this book together, and then I ask my students, "What's the important thing about you?" If they were going to write a verse about themselves for this book, what would their verse say? We write our thoughts down in our writer's notebooks. Then, I take it a step further, "What part of your physical body would be associated with that important thing about you?"

For example, the important thing about Ms. Willis is that I notice things other people don't see. My eyes would be associated with this.  After we massage our details about ourselves and choose that important body part, we take black and white pictures of that part of us and write a verse about ourselves. 

The important thing about me is that I notice things that other people miss,
like when someone has hurt feelings, 
or is alone on the playground, 
and the time my chocolate puppy Gracie didn't feel well. 
But the important thing about me is that I notice things that other people miss.
My kids love getting creative with the ipad cameras and then writing about how their pictures show the important things about them. What makes this an upper elementary lesson is the metaphorical thinking it demands that students do. The black and white photos and their poems make a stellar beginning of the year bulletin board.

If you want to try this yourself you can grab a writing page to help you, for free! Click the picture to snag it!


My last book recommendation is another golden oldie. I do use newer texts in my classroom...honest! But when I find older treasures that I love and that my kids wouldn't necessarily pick up themselves because they aren't recently published, I want to use them.  The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes was first published in 1945! It's a Newberry Honor book that has never gone our of print. 

This small chapter book tells the story of a young Polish girl named Wanda who comes to school every day wearing the same clothes. The other kids in her classroom ridicule her. Wanda tells them that she has 100 dresses at home. Her classmates are merciless. Wanda leaves the school suddenly, and her classmates feel terrible because it's too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda's classmates, vows that she will never again stand idly by and say nothing when she sees someone being treated poorly.  The theme of this book is an important one, and I've used it as a comparison text for countless picture books with the same theme. I teach a high ELL population, and wearing the same clothes to school every day is not uncommon for struggling immigrant children. Want to cultivate some empathy? Check this classic out. It's timeless.
The first weeks of school are so important for setting the tone and culture of your learning community. The books and projects you choose to share impact your classroom culture. 
For more reading and writing ideas for the beginning of your school year, click the pictures to learn more. 

This week's WE TEACH SO HARD podcast is about finding great read alouds for your first weeks of school. Come give us a listen! Click the picture.
Also, be sure to visit Retta, Kathie, and Deann's blogs below for more great read aloud suggestions, tips and freebies!

Episode 4 with WE TEACH SO HARD: Setting the Stage for Parent Curriculum Night & Open House

Flop sweats, butterflies in the belly, and live cricket mayhem...This episode has it all! Give it a listen! Click  HERE!

The Building Blocks: Reader's Workshop 101

Teach the reader, not the book.
                                                                                       -Wild Child 

I was one of the lucky ones. I didn't struggle in reading class. I was in the "bluebird group." The worst reading experience I had was when the volunteer librarian wouldn't let me check out Nancy Drew chapter books when I was in second grade. My teacher mom marched herself into school, in her best teacher pantsuit, to talk to the librarian. The next week, I immersed myself in Nancy, Beth and George's detective antics. I was lucky. Reading wasn't an opaque wilderness.

As a teacher, I was lucky, too.  I learned about the workshop model very early in my career. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time at the University of Arizona. I finished my master's degree within the Language, Reading and Culture department. The entire program was workshop-based. I had died and gone to heaven. 

Why is the workshop model heaven? Let me count the ways...

  1. It allows the teacher to differentiate for each student.
  2. Student choice is honored and welcomed.
  3. It teaches the reader and not the book.
  4. It's strategy-based.
  5. It makes the reading process transparent for students.
Like all great teaching methods, it's not without its challenges, but it's worth doing. If you weren't exposed to the reader's workshop model early on, it can feel really overwhelming. But listen, I didn't say that I had all the blocks in place at the very beginning. No way! Like any rigorous and student-centered method, implementation takes time. Teaching is an art form that develops with practice. So what is reader's workshop?

The reader's workshop consists of 5 parts: An interactive read aloud, a mini-lesson, independent reading with conferring and small group instruction, a mid-workshop teaching point, and finally the share. 

Juggling these parts at first can make a teacher crazy. I like to think about it like marathon training. When I decided to train for a marathon (26.2 miles), I didn't walk out my front door and go for a 20 mile run. I began with a 3 miler, and then upped the distance gradually. That's how you start implementing reader's workshop... you gradually master the components. 


In reader's workshop, you begin your block of time by sharing a read aloud. This is not just a book you liked in the Scholastic book order. Read aloud texts act as mentor texts. That means, they serve an instructional purpose. What you choose to read is determined by what your students need, and what you need to teach them. You're using the text to explicitly teach reading strategies. 

During this part of the workshop, you read your mentor text aloud to students, stopping to discuss and model your comprehension thinking out loud. You might ask students to share their thinking. This is not a passive-I'm-gonna-read-this-book-after-lunch-to-calm-them-down reading. Students should be actively engaged. Sometimes, they doodle, draw or record their thinking in their reader's journals. Other times, I've asked them to listen for something, or I've reviewed our thinking from the previous session and by doing so, I've given them a purpose for listening. 

I have the ONE COPY of the book. This is not a whole-class read.  I typically write our thinking on chart paper. This serves as a record from chapter to chapter. 


After the interactive read aloud is done, the mini-lesson is next. The purpose of the mini-lesson is to teach one reading strategy to the whole group. During the mini-lesson, you introduce one teaching point, you will probably use excerpts from the interactive read aloud to help you do so. You model the strategy for students. 

Then, you have them practice with you or a partner. This is called guided practice. Finally, they try it on their own. Before sending students off to read independently, remind them of what the teaching point was, and that you expect them to try it while they read. Sometimes, you might ask for them to provide evidence of this by way of an entry in their reader's notebooks or on a sticky note that they'll share later. 

Remember, it's a MINI-lesson. It's 15 minutes long. That's it.


During independent reading, students read to themselves. As an upper elementary teacher, I don't do a lot of center work during this time. There are two reasons why: 
  1. Upper elementary students need to develop reading least 50 minutes at the fifth grade level, 40 minutes for 4th grade, and 30 minutes for 3rd grade. This is research-based! Look up any reading guru. He or she will tell you. Honest.
  2. Sometimes, center work is often "busy work." Teachers are afraid their students won't read for the expected duration. Stamina and refocusing strategies must be taught. Why waste valuable reading time with busy work tasks? The way students become readers is by READING!
During the independent reading time, I'm not eating bon-bons. I'm teaching.

I teach guided reading or strategy groups at this time. These are small-instruction groups that I've formed to support learners who are either reading at a similar instructional reading level, or who are reading at different levels but have similar reading strategy needs. 

I form these groups using Fountas & Pinnell reading assessment data or NWEA data. They are not static. They change as my readers change and grow. This is a change from the "once a bluebird, always a bluebird" reading group mentality.  During small group instruction, we discuss vocabulary, word study, read short texts or portions of longer texts together, and tackle specific strategies they have shown that they need during assessments. 

Each group member has a copy of the text. I meet with about 3 reading groups a day. Every group doesn't meet every day. My high-need group will see me every day. My other groups will see me 2-4 times a week. Each reading group takes no longer than 15 minutes. I tend to be wordy, so I set a visual timer to keep me on track.

In between groups, I might touch base with a couple of students who are reading independently. I'll have a 5 minute reading conference where I'll check in with them and quickly discuss their thinking. These are called reading conferences. I jot down notes and move on. 

Is every child in a reading group? No. Instructional equity doesn't mean equality. My job as a reading teacher is to give each student what he or she needs. My level Z 5th grade reader doesn't need a reading group. That would just slow her down, so I confer with her instead...or she might engage in a student-formed literature circle or reading partnership. 

At some point, I stand in the middle of the room or back in the instructional area, and I check in with my readers. It might look like this, "Readers, look this way. What details are you noticing that your author used to show the character's internal actions?" Students respond. Sometimes, if I know it's going well with the mini-lesson teaching point, I might add more rigor to it during this check-in. 

That might sound like this, "Readers, we've been practicing noticing when the author uses specific details to show the character's internal action, but now I'm wondering if you agree with the choices the author has made. From now until the end of our workshop time, find a few minutes and use a sticky to jot your thinking down about the choices the author has made. Be ready to share!"

This part lasts no longer than 5 minutes, and it's often shorter than that!

The last thing I do during the independent block is to facilitate a share. The temptation to leave this out is sometimes overwhelming. In fact, it's still the part I haven't mastered to my liking. I call my reader's together in the instructional area again, I reiterate the teaching point, and I ask students to share what they learned while practicing it during independent reading. Sometimes, they just raise their hands and share aloud, and other times, we pair-share and I eavesdrop while they talk with their partners. If we've used sticky notes, they put these up on chart paper that I've prepared, and we go over them together. This takes about 5 minutes.

That's a 90 minute reader's workshop block, in a nutshell. When I began teaching with the workshop approach, I focused my efforts on the interactive read aloud and reading groups. Later, when I felt like I had some teaching fluency with those, I turned my attention to my mini-lessons. This was hard. I had to edit myself because my mini-lessons were actually maxi-lessons. I worked with a literacy coach for a while. This helped me tremendously. 

Then, I tackled the mid-workshop teaching point. It wasn't until I became a literacy coach myself, that I realized that I needed to work on the Share component of my workshop. 

My point is that as teachers, we are always learning. It's the very nature of our jobs. So if you're always learning, why not try an approach that is student-centered, makes reading strategies transparent for readers, and turns non-readers into readers? 

If you're interested in more detailed information about reader's workshop, follow this blog! Over the next two months, I'll be writing about each of the 5 workshop parts in more detail.

In the meantime,  check out the reader's workshop planning pages below. They'll make your start up easier! 

Pssssst! In case you haven't heard, you can chat with me about reader's workshop on FaceBook! Visit at

You can also tune in weekly at WE TEACH SO HARD. It's a great way to talk shop! Click the picture below.

Consider joining our FaceBook pitch, just teachers who want to talk shop! Click the image below to join.

What Happens When Your Team Isn't A Dream?

What happens when your team isn't a dream? It has probably happened to all of us at some point in our careers. So what do you do?

Listen...'cuz you teach so hard.