We’ve all been a part of an environment that pushed us to critically think and question. I remember a class I took as a part of my principal training. It was taught by a practicing principal and although it was challenging, it pushed me to reflect and grow as a learner. One class session we had 30 minutes to plan a staff meeting or professional development session with whatever resources we could find within that time limit. The professor set up the task but purposefully let us struggle with the process. She asked probing questions but did not give us a step by step recipe for completing the task. I remember being a little stressed at the time but I learned a lot about myself as a leader from that activity.
In his book Creating Cultures of Thinking Ron Richhart, a senior researcher from Harvard’s Project Zero, shares some of the common characteristics that people share when thinking about cultures of thinking they have experienced. Some of these are:
I asked some teachers from Rochester Public Schools for their tips on creating cultures of thinking in their classrooms.
The 10-minute essay
When students hear the words 'journal entry', 'essay', 'research paper', or 'written response' the reaction that follows is typically not a positive one. They tend to elicit groans rather than celebrations.
For many students, large writing assignments are daunting and overwhelming. (In truth, even for me—an adult with an English degree—large writing assignments are daunting and overwhelming.) But writing assignments don’t have to be large to have a big impact.
I'm reminded of a quote from A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Lysander explains, "though she be but little, she is fierce." That, in a nutshell, is micro-writing.
Micro-writing, defined as short bursts of writing that take only 2-10 minutes to complete, is a little-yet-fierce tool in our classrooms.
- Helps students activate background knowledge
- Enables students to reflect on and transfer knowledge
- Encourages self-explanation
- Incorporates creativity and draws on images
- Builds critical thinking skills
- Uses helpful frames and structures
As a bonus, the benefit extends beyond our EL students. For all learners—not just EL learners—the above bulleted list still applies. Plus, the recently published Ed Surge article “Micro-Writing is having a Macro Impact on Identity Development,” Bryan Christopher notes that micro-writing can be used as a check for understanding, a pre-write for what will later be shared aloud, or even as a vocabulary builder. Moreover, he notes that, “the value of micro-writing goes beyond academics, addressing social and emotional needs like self-perception and confidence.”
Personally, I love that micro-writing often pushes students to the highest level of Bloom’s, but without taking up large periods of valuable class time. When students write, even just for a small amount of time, they hit the “Creating” stage (level 6) of Bloom’s Taxonomy because they are generating something new with their knowledge. As a bonus, in getting to level 6 of Bloom’s, students often cross through the “Evaluating” stage (level 5) as they create an argument, make a value judgement, or evaluate a problem.
If you would like to try micro-writing in your own classroom, here are three strategies to help you get started:
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Six Word Compositions
- Q: How was the first week of school? A: Overwhelming, but I like my teachers
- Q: What was the theme of the novel? A: Love, when blind, can cause catastrophe
- Q: How did you approach the problem? A: Divided within brackets, multiplied by X
In her recent blog post, Kim Eversman explains how to use Six Word Compositions in memoir form; while Bryan Christopher, in his article, breaks down how they might be used in even more ways.
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If you want to explore the use of online Twitter Chats, check out the following articles:
- “Facilitating a Class Twitter Chat” by Jennifer Davis Bowman, published on Edutopia (December 2017)
- “Hosting a Class Twitter Chat in your Classroom” by Matthew Lynch, published on The Tech Edvocate (March 2018)
However, if you wish to try a low-tech version by using the worksheet shown below, access a copy of the handout, along with instructions, here (remember to first log in to your ‘@isd535.org’ Gmail account).
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So, the next time it comes time to write in your classroom, consider trying something short and sweet. If you would like to explore any of these ideas further, or have micro-writing ideas of your own to share, please reach out to me. I'd love to collaborate with you.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their book The Purposeful Classroom: How to Structure Lessons with Learning Goals in Mind talk at length about the importance of establishing a purpose for yourself as the teacher and for your students, and that instruction and learning should be focused on learning targets rather than tasks. Memorizing the Preamble, to me, seems like a task; whereas, understanding what the Preamble represents and means to us as Americans seems more like a learning target.
In just under two years my son will have the opportunity to visit Washington D.C. and I hope that when he does he is able to take the values and ideas presented in the Preamble (and the entire Constitution for that matter) and make them come to life as he experiences our nation’s capital. And, when that time comes and he’s touring a national monument or walking down the national mall, should there be a sudden need for the exact wording of the Preamble, I hope he is able to successfully search the internet for this:
If you would like specific ideas for how to increase student understanding, replacing memorization-focused activities with those that increase students' learning-by-understanding, please reach out to your instructional coach or one of us here at Secondary C&I.
A mere two minutes later, I head those dreadful words… “What now? We’re done.”
After multiple tweaks and failed attempts, I went to my Instructional Coach, Ellen Harford, looking for help with making these discussions work. She said to me, “I have this book that relates to your problem. Look at this...”
Enter: The Best Class You Never Taught by Alexis Wiggins.
I love trying new things; I’m usually up for anything. I read this book over winter break--it was fast and easy to read. I came back from break ready to plan out my implementation of Spider Web Discussions (SWD).
At this point, you may be wondering just what this "SWD" is. Here’s the gist: it is a whole class discussion guided only by the students with no input or direction from the teacher. The entire class gets the same grade (in the gradebook, but no count) based on pre-established criteria and post-discussion debriefing. What does the teacher do? Write all the students’ names on a paper and note where they are sitting, listen to the discussion, and draw lines from one speaker to the next.
I had two different sections doing the same discussion that day, and both can be described as…rough (to put it nicely). Both classes received an 'F'. They filled the 20 minutes, but did not meet almost any parts of the grading criteria.
Here’s why it was still incredible: we debriefed after. I took a picture of the diagramming I had done, put it up on the board, and let the kids take a look. It took a minute for the kids to understand what they were looking at, but when they did and they compared it to the criteria… light bulbs went off. They all had instant, individual feedback.
We did SWDs four more times for the book Night, plusI brought it into my writing class. We evaluated sample essays based on the essay rubric. The SWD had the same criteria and was graded every time. The kids flowed naturally into it in writing class because we’d had such consistent exposure to it in reading class while we were building the skills.
We just finished our final SWD for the year. The question? Who’s to blame for the death of both Romeo and Juliet? Both classes earned their first 'B' on the SWD and there were cheers by all.
SWDs have changed the landscape of my classroom. The students know what to do for each discussion now, they enjoy having so much time to talk and debate, and they get the academic speaking practice they need in an authentic way. I have never read a book about my teaching practice that I could literally implement the next day until The Best Class You Never Taught. If you think it can’t work because Javier never talks or Samira never stops talking, Wiggins problem-solves that with you and it works! If you think it can’t work because the kids might miss the big ideas, the group grade forces them to be prepared, which allows them to reach the big ideas.
I’m telling you, this will be one of the first strategies I implement next fall because we’re going to do it all year long.
Feel free to connect with Bordelon via email
Think Alouds are one way that makes thinking visible for students. It seems so simple. Just talk about what you are already thinking, yet it is extremely powerful for students. Teachers can model their thinking by making text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections. Check out this video to see a Think Aloud in action:
A Write Aloud provides a scaffold for students to guide them through the process of writing. Teachers can model a piece of writing so students can see the steps and procedures in the writing process. Throughout the process, the teacher explains verbally what he or she is thinking. The teacher can talk about why they selected a particular vocabulary word, phrase, transition word, or structure. Write alouds can be done with one teacher, or in a co-teaching partnership. In a co-teaching partnership, one teacher can do a think aloud while the other teacher takes notes or writes out what the other teacher is thinking in a structured format (or with a graphic organizer). Another idea is to have one teacher think aloud and write out what they are thinking, and then the other teacher performs a separate think aloud to show the differences in their writing and thinking processes. If you have a paraprofessional, it would be helpful to give them a frame for the think aloud so they can assist and/or provide other think aloud strategies.
A Scaffolded Comprehend Aloud is another version of a Think Aloud. While think alouds support different reading and writing strategies, Dove and Henigsfeld believe that scaffolded comprehend alouds “make thinking visible about processing and analyzing the language of complex readings at the word, sentence, and text level” (85). Dove and Henigsfeld provide the table below with different sentence starters (85-86). Each content area, and grade level, may have to adapt these, but this list can provide a start to using think alouds and/or scaffolded comprehend alouds.
Think Alouds, Write Alouds, and Scaffolded Comprehend Alouds are three great strategies to make our thinking visible to students. They provide a way for students to see inside our heads, model good reading and writing strategies, and allow students to use critical-thinking skills.
If you would be interested in trying any of these out with students, reach out to an instructional coach, or I would be happy to come out and model them beside you.
- Be Metacognitive about your Assessment: The next time you give students an exam or an assessment ask them to identify one or two questions/ exercises that they know they struggled with and then have them write on the back a prediction about how they did on the exam and what they did to study. This simple act of metacognition helps students think about how they’ve prepared and what they might do differently next time. This also give you feedback about where your students struggled. If many students identify the same two questions these are perfect concepts to reteach.
- Don’t Let Students Opt Out: It is easy to rely on the same three students to drive your class discussion but this allows many of our students to take a cognitive nap. Pose your discussion question as you usually do but ask students to do a bit of writing first and then ask them to talk to one other person about what they’ve written. After this, open it up to full group discussion. Students are more likely to have better, deeper answers and all students will have engaged with the content.
- Ask Instead of Answer: Instead of having students answer questions that are already designed have them construct the questions. Many teachers use Webb’s Depth of Knowledge sentence stems and assign students a level of question to ask to increase the rigor of their questions (an example of this can be found here). Students can then pair up or work in a group of four to answer the questions other students posed.
- Use Thinking Routines: Teachers at John Marshall have found great success using Thinking Routines from this website. One of the most effective I’ve seen is the routine See/Think/Wonder. Students examine a piece of art, an artifact, a video clip, or demonstration and note what they see, what they think about this, and what it makes them wonder about it. This routine helps students make careful observations and moves them into analysis.
If you would like help with implementing any of these four metacognative approaches, or any metacognitive approach for that matter, consider reaching out to your Instructional Coache(s) or one of us from the Secondary Curriculum and Instruction team.
I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with a biology teacher who was having his students investigate the contribution of scientists who helped to discover and reveal the structure of DNA. We decided this activity could best be assessed using the Biology Proficiency Scale for "Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information." In order for students to be considered 'proficient' in this Prioritized Learning, they would need to meet the following criteria as listed in the Proficiency Scale: "Students can evaluate and interpret the validity and reliability of claims, methods, and designs. Then they can synthesize a synopsis of the material and communicate that information (eg. orally, graphically, in writing and/or mathematically)."
This Proficiency Scale is at the 'Apply' and 'Evaluate' levels of Bloom's Taxonomy and thereby requires a different type of assessment than a multiple choice or short answer structure. In our planning sessions for this activity, we found that we would have to tailor our assessment strategy in a way that is different than the traditional objective type questions that are often asked of our students.
In the article "Three Key Questions on Measuring Learning” (Education Leadership 2018), Jay McTighe attends to the idea that as educators change their focus from knowledge based assessments to skill based assessments, they need to adjust their measurement tools from objective type questions with simple point values to subjective questions that level a student along a proficiency continuum. To show proficiency in a skill, students need to use knowledge to perform that skill and show their understanding. In this particular activity, students would need to show that they could communicate both orally and in writing that they are able to synthesize the information about our understanding of DNA. We decided on the following structure for the lesson and assessment:
The Lesson Plan for our “Jigsaw/Gallery Walk” Framework
Students were assigned to a scientist and given one of three questions to answer about the scientist's contribution in the discovery of DNA. The students were informed that their contribution was critical for their group's success.
Day 2 | Research Group - Synthesize ideas, evaluate information, and create the poster:
Students brought their research to their group for a collaborative poster design project. The groups were given a criteria for questions that needed to be answered on the poster. Students were encouraged to be creative in their poster design.
Day 3 | Research Group - Finalized the poster and presentation:
Students polished both their poster and planned how they would present to their home group.
Day 4 | Home Group - Gallery Walk Communication:
The home group consisted of six students. Each student had the opportunity to present their own research and poster to the other students in their home group. The presenter was given a feedback template consisting of four parts:
- Things to polish
- Questions you have
- Tie presenters research to your own research
Day 5 | Individual - Assessment:
The students were asked to communicate in writing a synthesized synopsis of the material.
In summary, one can see that this lesson pushed students to move beyond knowledge acquisition into synthesis. The use of a Jigsaw/Gallery Walk where the students could get feedback from peers and the final written assessment where the teacher could give feedback helped to drive student learning and move the students toward proficiency on the Prioritized Learning.
Many science teachers find that it is easier for students to follow prescribed procedures to "carry out investigations" as all they need do is follow the steps to obtain the results that confirm a scientific concept or theory. The same science teachers often ask, "How do I afford students the time to practice the planning part of this prioritized learning?" Teachers often skip having students plan the investigation because of the very real possibility that the student ideas for procedures will be impossible to implement due to time, materials, safety, etc..
Teachers often find that by sacrificing the planning part of the investigation, the students are more likely successfully complete the lab and see that the science works. Experience has shown us that students often contrive a procedure that will not work or cannot be competed in the school environment. When students do not come up with a workable procedure, we teachers feel that the students will be devastated by a failure.
In reality, much of the research on brain development suggests that by not allowing our students to learn from their mistakes, we are inhibiting their learning. What we need is a way to give students practice in planning experiments in a manner that is not impeded by time, materials, and/or safety.
An intriguing idea to increase opportunities for students to plan experiments is described in the book Academic Conversations-Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understanding by Jeff Zwiers & Marie Crawford. In the chapter "Academic Conversations in Science," the authors lay out a reading activity that fosters scientific thinking, inquiry, and communication skills. The authors contend that much of what students read in science textbooks is written as statements of fact and advocate that educators use these statements of fact to increase student investigative skills. The authors suggest that student pairs design a lab experiment, or research project to support the claim(s) made in the text. The students should look for statements in the text that are testable through experiment.
For instance, two excerpts from our current high school science texts are given in the table below:
- What could scientists have done to come up with this?
- What could we do to confirm that this is true (if we had all the money we needed)?
- What tools and materials might we need?
Many constructive conversations may arise through comparison of the students own invented procedures and the prescribed procedure. Who knows, the students might come up with a better procedure with more consistent results than the one prescribed. By having students read our textbooks we can, with multiple opportunities, help our students to become proficient in the Secondary Science RPS Prioritized Learning of "Planning and Carrying out Investigations."
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Analysis & Inquiry
Grading For Learning
Instructional Learning Formats
Planning For A Sub
Quality Of Feedback
Regard For S's Perspective