Poetry: In the darkness, it rises


CC via Unsplash. Click photo.

I’m joining fellow teacher-poets for some December poetry writing with Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading). Carol Wilcox (Carol’s Corner) and I are adding poems over in the comments section of Mary Lee’s poem place (Poetrepository) after she posts her daily haiku, Kevin Hodgson joins in via Twitter (@dogtrax), Leigh Anne Eck on her website, A Day in the Life, and others, too, I’m sure, who are writing in various locations around the internet. I just haven’t figured out where, yet.

I shared this poem over at Mary Lee’s, but the formatting in the comments section didn’t let me get it “right”, so I’m sharing it here, too.

One of the great gifts December gives me is a reminder of the boundaries of time. Days are short. Snow turns to ice, then melts to water. Frost appears and disappears. For me, summer has a timeless quality; winter is about temporary things.



Poetry: A Missed Opportunity

evolutionary robotics nancy waldman via Compfight

I’ve been so busy trying to write curricula1 that I haven’t had the time or energy to write much of anything for myself. So when a friend told me a story recently, I grabbed hold to see where it would go.

What emerged was a prose-poem…of sorts. Though I’m never really sure exactly what one is, I’ve played with the form. I’m studying prose poems by the likes of Louis Jenkins, Mary Oliver, and, one poem in particular by Robert Hass, A Story About the Body.

From Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates: entering the mind of poetry) I learned that Japanese poetry “speaks of the nioi, it’s fragrance, and hibiki, reverberation, as qualities equal in standing to its ‘content.'” The prose poems I’m studying all seem to contain a rich layer of detail, even different stories, piled on top of each other. The close proximity of these stories creates almost a harmonic vibration, a polyphony, a resonant subterranean hum, which I love to listen to. Maybe all poetry does that?

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately, this way that stories slice time into measures that we play in the heart. Depending on where you end and where you start, a different tune emerges. What stories do you tell? Where do they end? Where do they start?

A Missed Opportunity

A friend told me about deer hunting recently; about how he spotted some wary does a good distance from the tree stand; about the long wait for them to come closer; about finally letting loose with one, then two, then the last of his three arrows, all missing their mark at that great distance. And then, only after the arrows were spent, did the does approach the stand, mere feet away when the buck arrived (eight points!), their close-breath pungent, their dew-wet bodies steaming in the cool dawn. What is the point of a story? Years ago we both felt a coldness grow; eventually our hearts became hard, then brittle. Do you remember? Our silence wrapped tightly around those days. And so we watched the years unravel like an old sweater. Once the yarn got wound back into a ball, needles clicked again. That’s what I mean when I say be patient. Stories end and begin in the heart. So will yours.

–Steve Peterson, 2015


  1. …which is, really, just to say that I have been barely keeping my head above the waterline that is daily life as a teacher, enough above to make a living, but not enough above to breathe very deeply, or to make a life, if you know what I mean? And there is a story that I need to tell about writing curriculum, too, and what that does to the soul.

Extra Ordinary

illuminatedCreative Commons License Vinoth Chandar via Compfight

The other day something small happened that caused me to think about big things.

We’d been writing short informational pieces (in this case descriptions) and, like last year, I brought in a large number of Indian grass stems from the prairie I am growing on the hill behind the house. The kids measured, observed, and dissected the stems. The goal was to write a physical description of the plant.

Like last year’s project, the kids noticed the joints that make up the stem of the plant; the way the leaves wrap around the stems and emerge from the joints; the way the joint pattern repeats all the way up the stem and into the seed head. They marveled at the lightness of the stem (nearly 7 feet tall!), hollow but flexible and strong. They saw a similarity between Indian grass and a more familiar grass -corn- a common sight in the ag fields in Iowa.

I wandered the classroom watching the kids interact with each other and their specimens; I asked questions and made observations. When I dropped by R.’s table, I noticed a lot of erasures on a drawing she’d created to help her see the grass more slowly. Sensing a story, I asked her about the erasures.

With an excited smile, R. said that she had looked at the grass, then drawn it from memory. But then, when she went back to look again, she noticed that her memory had placed a lot more leaves on the grass than actually existed, so she erased to make her drawing more accurate: “The picture of the grass in my head had a lot more leaves on it. When I looked at the grass again, I realized that I had not really noticed how many leaves there were! So I went back and changed it (my drawing.)”

A small thing, right?

But what a wonderful experience to have. In that small moment, she had learned a huge and valuable lesson about how our minds work, what (re)vision really means, and she felt, through lived experience, how changing your mind (and knowing you did it!) can, quite literally, change your mind. Through that interaction, too, I was able to help name for her how she opened her mind to see what was there, how she changed her mind when the world did not match her idea of what the world might be; how these small actions are what learning is really about, and, ultimately, what life is about.

Does the experience of revising one’s thinking get measured by the tests “that matter?”

Yet, isn’t this kind of interaction at the heart of each conversation teachers have with a child? It’s at the heart of any workshop model we use in reading, writing, science, or any other area of inquiry.

In addition to the planning and the assessing, maybe teaching is also most fundamentally about these momentary interactionsAt the heart of my teaching heart are those times I help a child notice the monumental in the ordinary and, together, we set that moment on the table to study.

A (Microscopic) Window into Science Class

This is a cross-post from our classroom website.

As part of our study of the flow of energy and matter through organisms and ecosystems we have been making periodic trips out to the creek behind the school. A couple weeks ago we constructed a food chain that might exist in the creek. The food chain featured a water strider.

To help us get a better sense of the lower parts of that food chain, we smeared microscope slides with peanut butter from the lunch room. With the peanut butter we hoped to attract small creatures in what microbiologists call a “biofilm.” It’s that layer of slime that you see on stuff in the creek.1

Here’s a video from our classroom this week as we looked through a microscope that we projected on our TV in the classroom.

In the first clip, you can see what appears to be some sort of nematode (I think??) moving very quickly. To the left is what appears to be an amoeba? Other creatures (Rotifers? Euglena? Paramecium?) dart in and out of the frame. At one point, a large tubular creature darts into the frame and out again. The kids’ surprise is audible!

In the second clip is a cluster of creatures that appear to have flagella, which create a vortex that draws food near. The kids seemed fascinated by these. We watched for about 10 – 15 minutes.

One student, Mason, exclaimed: “It’s like the microscope slide is New York City!”, which is so true. The kids marveled at just how many creatures must be living in the creek if there are that many on just one microscope slide. Suddenly, the world got to be just a little bit bigger and more interesting.

PS. Thanks to the College biology department for their long-term loan of the microscope and camera and to Dr. Enos-Berlage for the idea to make biofilms in the first place. My special thanks go to Mr. Fitton who made many trips to meet me after school to set up the microscope for this venture. Without his help, this would not have been possible.

  1. Biofilms are in a lot of other places, too, including the surface of intestines, your mouth, on the outside of many organisms…lots of places.

Read-aloud is Our Best Learning

Rust-v1-Visitor-in-the-Field-GN-Cover-202x300I did not intend to read ALL THREE of the graphic novel series RUST as a read-aloud to begin the year, but I found it was impossible to stop.

Now RUST may not be your favorite genre (sci/fi), and graphic novels might not be your favorite format, but this year, for these kids, they grooved on it so I kept on reading and reading and reading. And as we read and talked, I thought a lot about reading and the teaching of reading, and even (darkly) whether Reading Class is a valid subject to teach. 1

For those who do not know the series, RUST  is set in a sepia world during an undefined time. Early in the book, we discover that there has been a long war that pitted robots and people against other robots and people. A “jet boy” (Jet Jones) from that war 48 years in the past shows up on the barren wheat farm of Roman Taylor and his family. A creation (part robot/part boy) to aid in the war effort, Jet arrives at the farm pursued by a giant robot intent on doing him in. Roman rescues Jet from the robot, and Jet stays on the farm to help out, which is a good thing because Roman is barely able to keep the farm together. You see, Roman’s father went to war many years ago under mysterious circumstances and has never returned to the farm. Throughout the books, Roman writes him letters (but never sends them), he attempts to reclaim robots he’s found in a scrap heap in order to keep the farm running, and he tries to avoid thinking too far into the future.

RUST offers a complex world to think about together. The discussion has been fascinating and the fact that it is a graphic novel, for these readers, has helped highlight some of the ways complex fiction works. It has given us some meaty “author’s craft” stuff to think about, but in a form that slows down the pace of words coming at us, so we might keep track of how the author does what he does.

For example, the sparseness of the word-text has helped students identify important dialogue and description because it stands out more clearly. When we read the prologue to book 2, we encountered the following scene, which focused our attention on the idea that Jet was rebelling against the purpose of his creation, to be a super-weapon that would turn the tide of the war, a necessary evil who would relieve humans of the obligation to fight in any war ever again:


As we have read farther, we kept Jet’s question in mind, and began to think about whether this is a question we need to answer for ourselves, too. What is our responsibility to others? Is power enough? Do the ends justify the means? What is our purpose?

The artwork helps us focus on details that we might have missed if presented simply in words.


The difference in these power cells, and the way the illustrator allows us to linger on them (and on the eyes of the man collecting them from the battlefield) has become a central question we have thought about over the course of 3 books and nearly 600 pages. What a great experience to “hold onto” a detail (and a question) for so long! Maybe with this practice, students will be better able to do that kind of work with denser written text, too.

One more example. Complex narrative devices such as parallel stories are difficult to recognize, much less to track for these kinds of young readers. Yet, it sure was fun when we got to the section below and the kids realized that what appeared to be an action scene (which is was) was also a way to tell the “backstory” of Roman’s father’s entry into the army. In this scene, we get Roman’s letter describing the memory of his father’s conscription at the same time Jet is trying to deal with a robot who seeks to bring him back to his “maker.” The students got the chance to connect that decision to resist conscription to Jet’s decision to sacrifice his super-powers for a more “human” life. That’s what bravery looks like.

sequence1 sequence2 sequence3 sequence4



Besides bringing up important ideas about bravery and duty, the children now have experienced keeping track of parallel stories and have been able to construct some very concrete ideas about how authors construct a story. They are on the lookout for that kind of complexity because they have experienced the delight in recognizing when it occurs.

And all of this made me question my lesson plans that carefully lay out progressions designed to help students become independent, insightful readers. So much of what we did while reading aloud was “in the moment” instruction. We tried to figure out what this complex text meant, and we noticed what we did to figure it out. I was not all that important in the process, nor were my carefully laid out lessons all that useful. But what was useful was a good text, some thoughtful people who really wanted to make sense of stuff, and a little time to do it. 2

  1. Yes, I have this existential crisis every year. In my regular life, I read and write not as ends in themselves, but as a means to a larger end. So, I ask: How might reading and writing in school serve other ends that are larger than ‘READING CLASS”? What other ends might these be? These are the questions that bring on my yearly crisis, and my struggle to answer them drives some of what happens in the classroom.
  2. I know, this seems like the “easy way out,” doesn’t it? But my yearly existential crisis comes down to this: I wonder if a lot of what we (I?) need to do in teaching is along the lines of the kind of work we did with RUST,  which is difficult to place within a simple, single “I can…” statement, for example. I’d call this sort of a mutual cognitive apprenticeship. We learned by watching each other think. My role was, essentially, to name what we did.

Poetry Friday: More Renga with Friends

Moonrise Over Santa TeresaCreative Commons License Dawn Ellner via Compfight

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading) suggested we write another renga and Jan Burkins (Burkins & Yaris) agreed. Both are such adventurous souls! You can see a description of the renga form and our first attempt at writing one together here.

I loved being able to write a second poem in the same form with the same people. It was interesting to observe how having multiple opportunities to write the same thing opened up new layers of understanding for me; understanding of my process, our collaboration, and the ways the poem works to create meaning for me. Multiple tries at the same thing are important for kids; they are important for adults!

At some moment during the second attempt, I began to see the stanzas of the poem not as a linear form whose meaning resolved as I read, but as layers piled on top of one another, sort of like a pair of polarizing sunglasses that, when tilted just right block out the flashes of light on a lake in summer. The layered stanzas helped me see words and ideas in sharper relief and in deeper hues because they made certain images and words stand out.

For example, Mary Lee’s sharp wheel of cheddar/round of brie connected so nicely to the round cracker-moon in the stanza before, turning that image of fullness into one that I could taste as well. Similarly, Jan pulled from my crusts of bread a wide palate (fresh…sour…vast) that broadened my original idea of sparseness into one that had texture and verve. Finally, I loved the way Jan took my image of the wrinkled face and transformed it into a memory, which Mary Lee carried downstream to serve as the very soil for the renewal of a “new land.”

Lots for me to learn from these two! What fun to write together.

But enough of my marveling. Here’s the poem.

as the hummingbird sips the nectar

round moon not yet full
finds my cracker–full ‘til bitten
life full with roundness

sharp as a wheel of cheddar
smooth and creamy as brie

under the gnarled oak
an old couple tosses
dry crusts to the pigeons

we become what we take in
fresh foods, sour moods, vast ideas

mountain peaks tower
above the endless plains
full — sharp — old — vast — inspiring

toward evening, golden sunlight
settled on her wrinkled face

inside she’s a girl
surprised by her reflection
in her dreams she runs

river carries silt downstream
building up the new island

sweet alchemy —
orchard apples filled
by the light of a star

loose tooth lost with first bite
red orb of bittersweet

cold front passes through
scrubs away humidity
wren sings from the fence

once, he learned to see rainbows
in the oil on a street puddle

a skill important
for grownups who are often
too busy measuring

too concerned with to-do to
barter duty for beauty

You can find more poetry at Poetry for Children.

Building a Poem Place

I struggle with how to get more poetry in the hands of kids. Why? It all starts with my hope that others can have what I have. For me, poetry provides a place to slow down and see what is often unseen, to fill what might be empty, to hear a murmur in a world that shouts. In my hubris, I believe others might be like me in this regard.

Somehow I found out about Seattle’s Poetry on a Bus project. The project seeks to put poetry into the daily lives of people. Here is an example from this week’s featured poet.

from Poetry on a Bus. Click on the link to take you to see the archive.

from Poetry on a Bus. Click on the link to take you to see the archive.

But it is more than just poems on buses; it is also about fostering a city-wide poetic reflection on the theme of “home” as experienced by the citizens of the many home places that make up the people of Seattle. Poets fanned out into neighborhoods to teach workshops on how to write poetry. They met in community centers, churches, schools, businesses, wherever the people of that neighborhood met. Then they wrote poems. The poems on the buses are written by the people from the neighborhoods, regular people who have a story to tell, an image to share.


To build interest in poetry, one idea I had was to create a publically shared Poem Place outside my classroom where others could stop by and read as they went about their daily activities, kind of like a stationary bus, I guess.  At first, I would just put up poems that struck me or seemed to fit the time of year. Since I am inclined to look to the natural world and we live in a rural part of a rural state (Iowa), probably some of these would be connected to what students might see around them. I might also couple these with a short informational piece written by either me or by someone I found online, sort of like what Joyce Sidman has done in many of her wonderful books.

Since we recently moved to a 1:1 digital learning environment, I thought I could link the informational text(s) via that method as well.

So, maybe something like this, coupled with informational text on the history of tomatoes.


Poem is from the Writer’s Almanac. Click on the image to go to that page. (Made with Google Draw.)

Or this one since the bats are out at night, coupled with some short text/video about bats.

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems. (Made with Google Draw.)

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems. (Made with Google Draw.)

Or this one, since dogs are always so interesting to kids, then coupled with something on the history of dogs, or the science of anxiety.

From Mary Oliver, Dog Songs. (Made with Canva.)

From Mary Oliver, Dog Songs. (Made with Canva.)

My plan is to post these outside my room and online in a section of my classroom website. While I will be curating and publishing many of these early in the year, I hope that some students will begin to take over the job of finding poems and turning them into posters.

Maybe these poems and informational texts will foster conversations among students, between parents and children? Who knows?

Ideally, we might actually move toward something like what Poetry on a Bus does, which is to hold poetry writing workshops and gather poems from the students themselves. (I think I know some 7th and 8th graders who might be interested in that part!) But even if we don’t get that far this year, or ever, I think the project might be worth trying anyway.

I will keep you posted on how it goes as the year goes along.

Poetry Friday: Writing a Renga with Friends

Old house. Sibillini Mountains, Italy. Photo by Steve Peterson

Old house. Sibillini Mountains, Italy. Photo by Steve Peterson

A few weeks ago I approached Mary Lee Hahn and Jan Burkins about writing some poetry together. I proposed a Japanese form called renga, although I had never written in that form before. To start, the first poet writes a haiku. The second writes two longer lines, a bridge, based on the haiku. The next writes another haiku based on the 2-sentence bridge, and so forth.

According to the Academy of American Poets, the renga is very old. They say it gave birth to the shorter haiku. I can see how it might also have helped create the 5-line tanka form, too.

We finished our first renga a few days ago, and it’s time to reflect on the process. First off, I was super-excited to be writing with Mary Lee and Jan. I love Mary Lee’s poetry. She is a master of few words with many meanings. While I haven’t read much of Jan’s poetry, I think that everything she writes has a poetic feel to it. I was honored that both of them said, YES! Let’s give it a try.

The collaborative element was a lot of fun for me. I found that the form seemed to lend itself to a kind of contemplative practice. Since the lines are so short, and both the haiku and the 2-line bridge are designed to call forth an image and then give it a twist, there is a lot of room for interpretation. I found that large room gave me plenty of space to think not just about the words, themselves, but also about the writer of the words (in this poem, Jan.) What was going through her mind? What images did she use? I found myself wondering what she was thinking. Then, as I crafted my part, my mind shifted to thinking about Mary Lee, who would get the words that I wrote. I strove to speak what I heard inside me but to also open space for Mary Lee to write. I found myself wondering where she would take those openings. What was on her mind, in her heart at the moment?

Another fun part of this, at least for me, was the fact that the poem really did not hang together as a coherent whole from start to finish, that is, if you were looking for a tightly written poem. Rather, its “meaning” was something that I had to work pretty hard to infer. But, since the parts were connected, I began to see a few threads running through the poem that were, because of the exegetical work it takes to see them, almost more precious to my eyes. One thread that emerged was a focus on those propitious tipping-point moments when something happens that causes the next moment to be quite different from the preceding ones. The fires, thunderstorms, even the call of the meadowlark are examples of these. Another might be a sense of age, or loss that comes with age. And a quiet acceptance of the whole thing. Those images of dust and memories and time passing, for instance. At any rate, I had a great time looking back and trying to follow the threads.

I think I might like to try this kind of writing with kids. I can imagine that it might build a sense of community.

For much more poetry, please visit Margaret at Reflections on the Teche.

Poetry Friday Tag




So, here is the renga, without a title.

in the prairie dawn

a spider’s web snares the sun  —

cricket rejoices

meadowlark joins the chorus

breeze bends ripening wheat heads

whose lanky bodies

bow, sun’s church–peace be with wheat

and also with corn

they gather on folding chairs,

jello melts while the preacher prays

white-robed acolytes

shoulders shaking with giggles

two clouds hide the sun

even the adolescent stalks are sober today

word of fire in the neighboring field

this dark sky —

thunderheads poke fingers

at a thirsty land

near the abandoned homestead

ditch lilies toss flaming heads

who called this place home

does the ground remember

stories brought to earth

a faded calendar tacked

to the wall above the stove

try to imagine

the layers of memories

beneath the dust

how much memory is imagination

how much dust is history

sun slants through wavy glass

in the stale air

motes rise to dance

down the road, far down the road

reverberations can be felt

Playing with Words — Creating Visual Representations of Vocabulary Words

In late December our school district began to create a digital learning environment (1:1). Having more computer access has allowed me to explore lots of different ways for learners to produce/create new stuff, to collaborate with each other, to store and reflect on their learning, and, well, all sorts of things.

One of my teaching colleagues, Heath Kelley (@6kelley)1, and I thought about how these technologies might help children learn new words. Our 43 minutes reading classes did not allow for a lot of direct instruction, yet we knew it is very important for teachers to help students learn increasingly complex words and to build student interest in the power (and beauty) of a rich vocabulary.

We also knew that vocabulary building requires high-level thinking about words and their meanings, as well as multiple exposures to those words to make them “stick.” Yet, we did not have a lot of time during the week to make that happen. What could we use to help build an interest in words and help learners get multiple, rich encounters with them?

After some thought, we settled on some great ideas presented by the terrific literacy team of Burkins and Yaris. From my blog reading — and being doubly fortunate to meet Jan and Kim at the NCTE14 conference in DC in November (Lucky me!) — I knew of some of the work they had done at the website LiteracyHead.com, specifically the wonderful section of that site called “WordEyes.

We loved the visual representations of words, the kid-friendly definitions, the multiple sentences, the whole nine-yards.

So, we decided to experiment with some ways to accomplish this that might be high enough interest that learners would do some of the actual work outside class. Here is a sample of some of the results, the full presentation is linked here:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

During the experiment, Heath and I

  • generated a list of Tier 2 words and created “student friendly” definitions.2
  • explored the WordEyes site with the kids to build interest and ideas for high quality visual representations;
  • assigned a word to each learner and helped them find quality sentences through online dictionaries. The final sentence was their own, though, and would serve as the foundation for the illustration.;
  • shared the Google Presentation with them3
  • stood back and watched, stepping in to help hone sentences using the comment feature on Presentation.

Once the slides were done, we had another protocol to help the children learn the words better. This included the following:

  • Each one teach one (or three!). We broke them into groups of 3-4. Each taught the others the words by looking over the Presentation. They discussed the thinking behind the illustrations. This happened through 2 groups. (5-9 words total for each.)
  • Tableaux. The children continued mixing with other groups and learning new words by creating tableaux digital photos of them “still shot” acting out the words.
  • Quizlet and Kahoot practice. We created links for the kids to practice the words through Kahoot and Quizlet.
  • Assessment. The kids took a final assessment on all of the words for the month.

Like I said, this is still in Beta stage development, but I am encouraged by the results. The visual representations (ala WordEyes) were a huge hit. The kids enjoyed thinking about their word and bringing out the nuances of meaning via the illustration. Several times children told me they had encountered a word from our vocabulary list in their own reading.

Even more interesting was the fact that 1/3 of the class created their own Google Presentations and collected words they encountered in their reading. Many shared these Presentations with a friend in the class so they could make it a community event. And I had no idea that this was happening until, by chance, I happened upon a couple students working on theirs in class. After asking around, I found out that some had worked on their word lists at home, together via Google Drive, the night before, and others had set times for more work in the near future.


  1. Put him in your list of contacts. He’s one smart guy.
  2. We will experiment with this next year. We will probably generate lists from our read aloud, maybe words to use for writing workshop, perhaps other “theme related” words as well.
  3. Each person already had a slide.

Five Whys to Deepen Thinking

Utwo Boss elevage le courtal via Compfight

I am constantly looking for ways to lower the bar for students while raising the level of thinking in our classroom.  In fact, one reason I like a simple tool like the Notice/Wonder chart, which I first heard about through Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse’s terrific book, What Readers Really Do, is that anyone can notice and everyone can wonder.1 The bar is low, but oh my, the thinking that emerges can be heady, indeed.

In that spirit, this past school year I played with a way to deepen our thinking about narrative text and to provide a way to generate a summary. It starts in a surprising place, though: the old SWBS chart. In the past, I’ve found that the Someone-Wanted-But-So chart gives students an easy entry into narrative text and helps them summarize what they are reading. The downside is that the tool often yields very simplistic and formulaic thinking. It becomes something to fill in, rather than a tool for thinking.

a more beautiful questionAfter reading A More Beautiful Question last summer, I decided to add a thinking protocol, called the Five Whys, to deepen our SWBS thinking. 2 The procedure is simple: ask five “why” questions about a single proposition. Since the SWBS chart is a series of propositions, and since one of the key aspect of any narrative is the conflict between the desire of a character and the ways that the real world impinges on the character’s desires — basically between the W (wanted) and the B (but) — I asked the children to focus on these parts when asking Five (or so) Whys.

To introduce the protocol, I asked the children to think about a simple story like Cinderella.

In the past, a student might have summarized the story something like this:3

  • Cinderella was a girl who lived with her step-mother and step-sisters. She had to do much of the work around the house. (S)
  • She wanted to go to the ball. (W)
  • But her step-sisters would not let her. (B)
  • So a fairy godmother helped her go the ball where she met the prince. (S)
  • Then, the clock struck midnight and the magic wore off, she left and dropped her glass slipper on the way out. (T)
  • Finally, the prince slipped the glass slipper he found on Cinderella’s foot and they lived happily ever after. (F)

The frame helps with the re-telling of the story, but look what happens when you add in the Five Whys protocol, especially to the W/B segments.

Proposition: Cinderella wanted to go to the ball. (W)

  1. Why might she want to go to the ball?4 So she could marry the prince.
  2. Why might she want to marry the prince? Ah…now you can see this going someplace interesting. Why, indeed? There are several places the kids went with this:
    • a) Because she is poor and marrying him would make her rich. Why might she have to marry a prince in order to not be poor?
    • b) Because she wanted a more glamorous life than scrubbing floors and taking care of ungrateful step-sisters all the time. Why might she have to do all the work for her step-sisters? Or, Why might she have to marry to get the life she wants?

Now we can see that these questions, only 3-deep, bring us to some interesting places. Given questions like these, we might go back into the story to try to understand Cinderella’s character better. What was it about her that made it difficult to stand up to the step-sisters? Or, conversely, what was it about their power that made it difficult to overcome? And, why is marrying someone else the answer this story provides?

Or, we might look outside the story to think about what options are “off the table” in a traditional fairy tale, options that would lead Cinderella towards a more independent solution to her desire.

I think what made it work was that the SWBS framework gave a “low-bar” way into the thinking. But the thinking didn’t stay low-bar because we layered the Five Whys protocol on top of our initial thinking.

All of this makes me wonder whether one key to deeper thinking is contained not so much in the doorway through which we enter a project, so much as how — or simply, that — we follow-up on the initial thinking.

At any rate, I was impressed with the simplicity of the protocol. I’ll be exploring it more next year.

  1. I’ve been interested to see how Joe Schwartz (Exit 10A) is making use of this tool in math. Schwartz has altered tasks like “textbook” questions by removing the culminating question, leaving just the description of a number story or the numbers of a number sentence. Then he asks the children to notice and wonder given the information he’s provided. Very cool, I think, for two reasons: 1) it lowers the bar for participation so everyone can begin thinking; 2) it makes a habit of these two thinking practices by making thinking visible. See the work of Harvard’s Project Zero for more about making thinking visible.
  2. This protocol is used by one of the major Japanese auto companies, Honda, I believe, as a thinking heuristic.
  3. Several years ago I asked students to consider adding an additional Then/Finally to the frame.
  4. By the way, I try to get the kids to use the word “might” whenever they ask a question because it elicits provisional-type thinking, rather than absolute “thesis-type” thinking. A thesis can come later.