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.

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.

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.

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.

Building Spaces for Conversation and Intellectual Play

BalancedCreative Commons License Earl McGehee via Compfight

My move to fifth grade this year disrupted a lot of my classroom routines. Last year’s fourth-grade classroom was self-contained; I taught the same learners all subject areas over the course of the day. This left me with a lot of flexibility to add and subtract time depending on where the learning was taking us, and I knew the children as learners really, really well.

Now I teach only some subject areas — three blocks of Science and one of Reading and Writing in forty-three minute blocks of time. As every classroom teacher knows, routines are at the core of what we do. They allow us to focus learner attention and to dispense with loads of explaining so we can get right to the thinking. They allow us central themes off of which we can riff.1

My colleague, Heath, and I are experimenting with a new classroom routine for these small-block classes. It’s an adaptation of Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week, which we call Task of the Week (ToW) because we wanted the children to think about a wider range of “text” — fiction, poetry, art, photographic images, primary historical sources, and video along with the kinds of informational text more closely associated with Gallagher’s Article of the Week. Our goal is to have a significant, student-led conversation about the “text” at the end of the week, a conversation that deepens our understanding of what the text might mean, how the “author” created that meaning through craft moves, and why that text might (or might not) be important beyond the text itself. The children know that all of the meaning-making work they do during the week is in preparation for this discussion at the end of the week. Our thought was that this weekly discussion would create an authentic reason for a deeper reading (close reading?) of the text, something that is often missing from close reading activities, in my opinion.

We read closely so we have something to say about the text. We want to have something to say because we have experienced the joy of building ideas in the company of others.

What Readers Really Do2So, here’s how T0W works (so far, it is a work in progress): Early in the week we introduce the children to the “text” without a lot of pre-teaching or background. The students annotate it looking for details they think are important. They generate questions that the text brings to mind. This early stage work is deeply connected to the kind of inductive thinking that Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse outline in their book: What Readers Really Do.2

Our text for last week was a poem by Valerie Worth, “Camels”, from her book of poems, Animal Poems. We felt it was rich enough that the students could find meaning on many different levels.3

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems, a super book of poems that can be read on many different levels of meaning...

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems, a super book of poems that can be read on many different levels of meaning…

We look at the early work the children produce, oftentimes conferring with them as they engage with the text. The data we gather at this stage helps guide our mid-week work, which is always based on a “writing to learn” activity, but might include additional reading to provide historical background, mini-lessons to explore author’s craft moves, to more prosaic lessons on how to use an online dictionary (as was the case last week!) The mid-week work includes a Google Doc with some questions that are designed to help the students draw together (synthesize) some of the details and questions into rough-draft interpretations (ideas) they have about the text. We conduct mini-lessons on how to write in a speculative, tentative manner. For example, we provide them with some statement stems, model for them through our own writing how to do this kind of writing/thinking, and offer examples from student work from the week before.

Last week, after conferring with some of the children as they worked through the early stages of Worth’s poem, I realized that the students might be interested in some additional background material about the Silk and Spice Roads, so I wrote up a short narrative of that historical moment and tried to tie it to the reading they had done about the Age of Exploration in social studies.4

Also, as I wrote this historical background, I realized that the poem had helped me now see the camel as another piece of “technology” that had become obsolete with the advent of the new technology of wooden sailing ships and more advanced cartography. Strange that I had never thought of the Age of Exploration that way before!]

Here's a screen capture of a Google Doc we gave the kids. Click on the image and it should take you to the Google Doc.

Here’s a screen capture of a Google Doc we gave the kids. Click on the image and it should take you to the Google Doc.

At the end of the week, we prepare a special place and time on Friday afternoon for a fishbowl discussion of the “text.”5 We have about 6-7 kids in the center gathered around the table while the rest of us ring them as observers. We choose a group goal to work on and each participant chooses an individual goal, too. Then we follow a rough protocol for the discussion (adapted from the Paideia: Active Learning website and Socratic Seminars) that begins with a period of time where we develop a shared basic understanding of the text. We follow that up by a period of time where we explore the ideas of the text. Our goal for the discussion is NOT to argue any particular point of view we have, but to explore the ideas in the text. We consider our discussion successful if we have developed a deeper understanding of the text. We always check in to see if that occurred.

The discussion is entirely student-led. I remain outside taking notes. Occasionally, though, I may interject to name a conversational move that we have identified as a goal, or that we have not yet explored. For example, last week I briefly interrupted the conversation when I heard one of the children say: “So, just so we are clear about what we are talking about, I think we are saying that this part of the poem might be meaning X. Is that right?”, which was such a wonderful way of summarizing and bringing the group together. Since we had not officially “studied” that conversational move yet, I thought it important to notice the move. All I said was this: “What Tamie just did is called summarizing and it is a very sophisticated way of talking about ideas. Its purpose is to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and is ready to build on an idea that you all share. In the back of your mind, I want you to think about what effect that move had on the conversation as it develops.”6 Then the conversation moved on. Several other students “tried out” summarizing as a “move” during the remaining conversation.

Finally, early the next week, we open up a discussion thread in our Schoology course. We raise questions that were still “live” at the end of the face to face discussion. In this discussion, all the kids can participate, not just the ones who were in the center of the fishbowl on Friday. We have found that, even as early as we are in the process, this online discussion space opens up more room for ALL children to participate, not just the ones who are best at inserting their ideas into the live discussion. This discussion is “open” all week. Usually, we spend 20 minutes on Monday talking to each other online. It is strange, but very interesting, to watch the kids interact with each other, even though the room is quiet except for the clicking of keys.

Excerpt from a Schoology discussion thread about the short story, Around the River Bend from two weeks ago. The children contributed nearly 90 comments during the week to that thread.

Excerpt from a Schoology discussion thread about the short story, Around the River Bend from two weeks ago. The children contributed nearly 90 comments during the week to that thread.


I have noticed several good things that have come from this rich classroom routine. First, I see evidence that the children see the discussion as a way to deepen ideas, not as a way to engage in “one-upmanship.” Here are some examples from the notes I took during last week’s discussion:

G1: OK. I came into the discussion thinking the “precious waters” were pretty much about water. Now I think the poem is more about all the precious things that are inside a person, even if the outside is not so good looking.

B1: I now think this poem might be about not really judging a person by what is on the outside, but by what is on the inside.

G2: If we think that stanza 3 and 4 might be about what is on the inside and stanza 1 is about…like how ugly maybe the outside is, then what do you think stanza 2 is about? How can we connect these two ideas?7

B2: When I first started thinking about this, I could NOT figure it out! Then I thought that maybe the poem was about a pirate and there being some buried treasure. I think I might be sort of right about the pirate and the treasure, but now I think it might be about treasure that is not like really buried treasure but all the stuff that is inside that no one can see.8

Second, these examples, at least to me, show children having fun “playing” with ideas. This move toward intellectual play, I think, is a crucial, though little talked about habit?/skill? displayed by good learners.

Third, this routine seems rich enough to play with, too. For instance, I have provided a lot of the focusing questions that are designed to deepen our reading of the text early in the process. As we get comfortable with the process, I think it would be fun to have the children generate the questions to think about for our “writing to learn” section of the process.

So, routines have been difficult to create this year. I find myself in an alien environment; getting used to that environment is taking longer than I thought it would. However, I’m curious to see where this new routine will take us as the year goes along.


  1. It is always a balance between creating routines that become, well, too routine and having few routines. Finding routines that are rich enough to last is difficult for me.
  2. Our thought was that by embedding this inductive work in a culminating discussion, the children would get repeated experience seeing the value of noticing details and generating questions that would be used later on as they began to synthesize ideas about the text.
  3. It was a lot of fun to read the text closely with Heath. Last weekend we emailed each other our own close readings of the text and discussed it over email. It was really fun to do this kind of thinking together. I only wish that we could do more of this as part of our district mandated professional learning.
  4. I think it was a good move to delay this background until the children had grappled with the second and third stanzas of the poem. For instance, they immediately took to the online dictionaries — an early mini-lesson last week — to find out the meanings of the words camphor, amber… as well as “ancient sway” and others. It was really fun to see the wide eyes and hear the gasps of realization on Wednesday when they read my short piece on the Spice and Silk Roads.
  5. Our preparation for these discussions is also a place we can conduct mini-lessons on how to have a discussion. These mini-lessons happen throughout the week and often range from more formal mini-lessons about paraphrasing or eye contact or building ideas, to incidental teaching when we hear a student make a “move” that could be used in our conversations.
  6. I find Peter Johnston’s work to be really helpful here. He suggests that a powerful teaching move is to “notice and name” what we see happening around us so that learners can see how the choices they make in the moment of an authentic activity are helping them accomplish that activity. The act of bringing those moves to consciousness can be empowering!
  7. I know. I was blown away by that one, too. She asked people to make that move much better than I could have!
  8. And this, from a child who just recently came off the “special education” list, which just demonstrates the point he was making about the poem, I suppose.

Thinking Long and Hard, in which We Create a New Model for Seasonal Change

Our unit on the seasons has drawn to a close. Earlier I posted about how our understanding of what caused the seasons was consistent with the explanation offered by many other learners, including some Harvard University graduates. In that earlier post, I explored the model for seasonal changes first articulated by the children (that the seasons are caused by the distance the Earth is from the Sun) and how we tried to disrupt that model by presenting contrary evidence. For instance, we built a scale model of the Earth and Sun system and noticed that the orbit was almost perfectly a circle, and we graphed monthly average temperatures from locations in the Southern and Northern Hemispheres.

These activities convinced the students that the naive model we had created could not explain seasonal variation in temperatures.

However, we did not have adequate information to form an alternate explanation. And if, as I suggested in that earlier post, our minds create stories to explain what we do not know, then without an alternate explanation we were vulnerable to re-adopting our previous story as the passage of time caused us to forget the reasons we gave it up in the first place.

So, what we did next was to build an alternate story that the Earth’s tilt on its axis causes the seasonal differences in temperatures. This story is easy enough to say, but I worried that such a simple explanation did not allow the children enough time or data to build an alternate model.

I knew changing the story would be difficult because I ran a little experiment. I told the children that the reasons for the seasons was the Earth’s tilt, and then I asked them to tell me how the tilt might cause the seasons. Even with various props (tennis balls and golf balls, for instance), they had a difficult time articulating why the tilt should matter. In fact, because it was difficult to articulate, many reverted to a variation on the “closer to the Sun” story, arguing that the tilt brought one hemisphere “closer to the Sun” than the other, which made it warmer than the one “farther from the Sun.” Hmm…Asking the children to explain their thinking helped me see the persistence of the old model!

Somehow I needed to help them see that there were other reasons besides distance to explain the seasons. I developed some simple lessons and demonstrations designed to help us see that there is a “triple-whammy” that causes the hemisphere tilted toward the Sun to have warmer temperatures.

Increased Area in the Summer

First off, I showed them a video that helped them visualize the way the tilt made one hemisphere absorb more of the Sun’s energy.

We watched the video several times so we could see how during the months a hemisphere was titled toward the Sun it was exposing more of it’s area to the Sun, thereby causing it to absorb more energy over a given period of time. We drew sketches that showed the hemisphere that tilted toward the Sun had a larger area that got sunlight during those months.

N. hemisphere summer. Note the increased area that absorbs the sun's energy.

N. hemisphere summer. Note the increased area that absorbs the sun’s energy.

Finally, we thought of analogies to help us cement this in our minds.1

Here is one analogy that we used to help us: A room with a small window will let in less warm sunlight than a room with a large window. The room with the large window will be warmer than the one with the small window because there is a greater area exposed to the sunlight.

Increased Day Length in Summer

I found a website that helped me graph day length in Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA (the two cities that we were using as our reference points.) We examined the graph to see if we could describe how the length of day changed in each location over the course of the year. Then we compared the two locations. We noticed that the shape of the graph was very similar to the shape of the average temperature graphs that we had completed earlier.

Comparison of day length for Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

Comparison of day length for Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

Comparison of average monthly temperatures. Canberra is in blue, Dubuque is in red.

Comparison of average monthly temperatures. Canberra is in blue, Dubuque is in red.

Again, we tried to create an analogy that might help us better understand what we were seeing: The longer you leave something in the oven, the warmer it will be (until it is the same temperature as the oven!)

The children were starting to form an alternate story now. More area that gets baked, plus longer in the oven creates higher temperatures in the summer.

We still had one more reason to consider.

Higher Sun Angle in the Summer

While the two reasons we had explored were probably sufficient to cement an alternate story, I wanted the children to get a sense of energy per unit of area. Exploring this concept would provide another opportunity for the children to understand more deeply the idea of area, a crucial math concept that they had been exposed to in fourth grade.

First, I showed the students the angle of the sun in Canberra and Dubuque. We practiced estimating angles of the sun by pointing with our arms extended to the place in the sky the sun would be at different times of the year. 2 The children intuitively knew that the sun was lower in the sky in the winter than the summer, but the graph helped them see that the time of highest sun angle was different for Canberra and Dubuque.

Comparison of the angle of the Sun by month for Canberra and Dubuque.

Comparison of the angle of the Sun by month for Canberra and Dubuque.

Earlier that day I set up two heat lamps. Both heat lamps were set 80 cm from a penny, and contained the same wattage of heat lamp bulb. However, one heat lamp was at a high angle to the penny (the summer position of the sun) and the other was at a low angle to the penny (the winter position of the sun.) I turned on the lamps and let the penny absorb the heat for 1.5 – 3 hours, depending on the time of the three science classes I teach. We measured the surface temperature using a digital laser thermometer.

A sketch of the lamp set up.

A sketch of the lamp set up.

As we examined the heat lamp set-up, the children estimated the area lit by the heat lamp bulb. They could easily see that the same amount of energy was spread over a large area when the “sun” was at a low angle and was more concentrated in a smaller area when the “sun” was at a high angle.

We searched for a suitable analogy and came up with this: When the sun is high in the sky, it’s like the Earth is baking in an oven set up to deliver more intense heat. The heat reaching the Earth is more concentrated during the summer months so each location on that hemisphere absorbs more heat than in the winter.

So, finally we had an alternate explanation. The Earth’s tilt creates a triple whammy that increases the temperatures in the hemisphere that is tilting toward the Sun:

  1. The tilt increases the area that can absorb the Sun’s energy in the hemisphere tilted toward the Sun, and decreases the area in the one tilted away from the Sun. This causes more of the Sun’s energy to be absorbed in one hemisphere than the other.
  2. The tilt also increases the day length in the hemisphere experiencing summer temperatures. The longer the day, the longer the Sun can bake that hemisphere, the more energy that hemisphere absorbs.
  3. Finally, the tilt increases the sun angle in that same hemisphere. The higher the sun’s angle, the more concentrated the energy is, which is like putting that location in a hotter oven.

So, not only is the hemisphere experiencing a hotter oven (sun angle) for longer periods of time (day length) there is more of it in that hotter oven at a time (area).

Was it worth it to spend this amount of time on what causes the seasons? Couldn’t we just learn a song to remember the causes? 

I think it was worth the time.

If science is not just about learning a set of facts, but reasoning our way through arguments and creating explanations based on evidence, then I think the time we spent thinking through our evolving understanding was probably worth it. Perhaps one of the reasons we maintain our misconceptions even after we know the “facts” is because we create “stories” to explain the world to our satisfaction. That’s what I saw when I asked the children to explain the seasons even after they had left the “distance from the Sun” explanation in the dust. If we do not pause long enough to take in new information, to play with it, to bat it around, to consider the implications of that information, then we run the risk of not seeing the significance of that information and how it conflicts with the stories we create.

  1. One thing good science writers understand very well is how powerful a good comparison — most likely an analogy — can be for helping a learner understand an abstract concept. We humans are creatures of comparison! I tell the kids that comparison is one of our super powers.
  2. This was good practice estimating angles from reference angles. The students had to identify 90 degrees, then half of that for a 45 degree angle. Using these two reference points, we estimated other angles in each location.

Questioning the Stories We Tell Ourselves — Misconceptions in Science Class


misconception definition

Science educators have long noted that learners can hold misconceptions about important scientific concepts. These misconceptions are often formed in elementary school, and can be surprisingly difficult to shake. 1

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might help students create stories to contain and connect the information they are learning in science class. I wondered if misconceptions might somehow be connected with the stories we tell ourselves. 2

As Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow notes, our brains have a hard time NOT making sense of things. We create stories to help us connect things, to remember them, and to make sense of things. Sometimes we jump to conclusions because the “story” we tell ourselves makes intuitive sense, but might be built on flimsy evidence.

from http://www.stripes.com/sports/stuttgart-huge-indoor-playground-is-a-world-of-wonder-for-kids-1.130591

from http://www.stripes.com/sports/stuttgart-huge-indoor-playground-is-a-world-of-wonder-for-kids-1.130591

The fact that we can see a connection between things, even if it is superficial or tenuous, can serve as evidence that the connection is true and important. We sometimes don’t question the story we tell ourselves because it seems like the story confirms what we already knew. Contrary evidence is discarded or, perhaps, not even noticed because it does not fit with the story we have created.3

What if the stories we tell ourselves about why or how things happen is strongly influenced by this almost innate desire to create stories with some degree of coherence? What does that mean for how I address misconceptions in science class? Perhaps it is really important to interpret the stories we tell ourselves, to determine the underlying “theme” (theory or model) that holds the story together. Then we can test that unifying concept against alternate versions of the story to see what holds us to the evidence we see in the real world.

Such was my thinking when we entered our learning unit on what causes the seasons.

At the very beginning of our learning, I gave the students this task:

The weather in our area is much colder than it was at the beginning of the year. We started the year at the end of summer and now we are entering winter. What do you think causes summer and winter? Jot down some words to explain why this happens. Please make a sketch of the Earth, the Sun, and how they move in relationship to each other to help me understand your explanation.

That evening I looked at the stories that emerged and found some surprising commonalities. For instance, about 10% of the children drew diagrams that had the Sun revolve around the Earth. We needed to deal with that important minority opinion.4 A very large number of children described the Earth in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. In this model, the seasons are caused by the Earth being closer to the Sun in the summer, and farther away from the Sun in the winter.

This is our first model of the Earth and the Sun. It's purpose was to visually represent (model) our explanation for the seasons.

This is our first model of the Earth and the Sun. It’s purpose was to visually represent (model) our explanation for the seasons.

The next day I asked the children why they thought this was the case. The first thing most said was that they hadn’t thought of trying to figure out the causes of winter and summer before, so my request was a challenge for them. But then they offered an explanation that the elliptical orbit placed the Earth closer to the Sun during July (a hot month) and farther from the Sun in January (a cold month). They argued that it made sense to them because the closer you are to a heat source, the warmer you get; the farther you are from that source, the cooler you get. In other words, this explanation makes intuitive sense based on their lived experience. Even though they had not really thought about the Earth’s orbit much before, they worked backwards from that lived experience to fit the orbit with the experience. While it bothered some that the Sun wasn’t in the center (“It doesn’t look right.”) they were willing to let go of that to make the model fit with the notion of how distance and temperature are related.

In fact, this explanation was also the one provided to the interviewers who asked Harvard graduates the very same question back in the 1980s.

Given our model, we made some predictions:

  • The closer the Earth gets to the January position in the orbit, the colder the temperatures will be.
  • The closer the Earth gets to the July position in the orbit, the warmer the temperatures will be.

I gave the children average temperature data by month for two locations: Dubuque, IA (close to our school location) and from Canberra, Australia (about as far from us as we can get.) Their task was to graph these data and to check it against what our model predicted.

The children set out to graph temperature data from Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

The children set out to graph temperature data from Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

Within minutes I heard exclamations like these:

  • Wait! What’s happening?
  • This can’t be right!
  • What?
  • Canberra is almost opposite of Dubuque!
  • What could cause that…?
  • Wow. I didn’t expect that.

I also showed the children a video that I had asked my wonderful brother to make. (He happened to be in Australia this last month.) On the day he shot it, the temperature was 84 degrees on the beach in Australia and 11 degrees in our town.

Then I asked the children to gather into groups to talk about the implications of what they had learned. Their task was to discuss these questions:

  • Does the evidence support our model, or cause us to question our model?
  • If it causes us to question the model, then what changes to our model would you make?
  • What additional information do you request from me in order to revise this model?

After a few minutes in their groups to try to come up with a different model (using sundry balls we had in the classroom), we gathered together to talk. We discovered that almost everyone wanted to change the model. Most wanted to change it drastically. Now they felt that the Sun had to somehow be in the center. Since the Earth was both warm and cool at the same time, they felt that an elliptical orbit would no longer work as an explanation. However, they grappled with how to explain the seasons, then; how could they develop a model that would take into account the fact that winter and summer appeared at the same time, but in different places? The advantage of the previous model was that it had explained temperature differences between the seasons. The disadvantage of the model was that it didn’t fit the more complex reality of actual temperatures on the Earth. Now, we were left without an explanatory model. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in.

Acknowledging the work they had done to try to revise the model, I asked them what new information they wanted to make sure their next model was more accurate. Here is a list of some new questions/requests for information:

These are some requests for additional information from the students. The numbers to the left side are the number of votes each request garnered.

These are some requests for additional information from the students. The numbers to the left side are the number of votes each request garnered.

Toward the end of last week I gave them data about the orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the diameters of the Earth and the Sun in order to help them answer their question about the shape of the Earth’s orbit. Their task was to make a scale model of this system given the data that I presented to them. I’ll post about this fascinating discussion next week, if I get a chance.

This whole process has been intriguing and, well, scary — like walking a tightrope is scary: I don’t want to make a mis-step. For instance, I gave the children a lot of space in class to discuss the first “elliptical orbit” model, knowing that it was inaccurate. We even used class time to develop a rationale for why that might make sense. So, in a sense I was helping the children develop a misconception, maybe even solidifying that misconception in their own minds. I worried about that.5

But, I think it will work out okay in the long run. This has been a puzzle that they have to think about. They have had to be engaged, thinking through the entire activity: one child: “This is so hard! It’s confusing…but fun to try to figure out!” And now they are accumulating information that has caused them reject their first model. I’m noticing that they are not going back to it, even though they do not have anything to take its place. I suspect that reluctance to readopt it might stem from the fact that moving from it wasn’t imposed on them by an “authority figure” like me, but from their own reasoning through the implications of the model they created. I’m hoping that the next model we create will provide enough explanatory power that it will stick more strongly than the “closer means more heat, farther means less heat” model.

Our next steps will be to offer alternative explanations using data about day length and sun angle to help them see why the seasons happen when they do. I’ll report back on what I learn from this process.

  1. Check out the science-related website, Veritasium, for their Misconceptions playlist. It’s fun to watch. Here’s an example:

  2. My own inquiry explores the implications of the idea that our minds, as author Thomas Newkirk reminds us, are “made for stories.” I presented some of this early thinking with a panel of wonderful folks at the NCTE14 conference in Washington, D.C. in November. One recent project brought me to experiment with collaborative story creation as a way to more deeply learn science concepts. As I explored this process, I was impressed by how deeply the kids processed complex scientific ideas. It seems that being able to put ideas into words, to see and articulate the relationships between ideas, to tell the story of a particular idea really does matter.
  3. This is the definition of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out and assign greater weight to evidence that confirms our preconceived notions. I suspect that this tendency ALSO might come from our ability to create stories. Coherence matters to those stories. But, maybe my attributing this tendency to our need to create stories is an example of confirmation bias, itself!
  4. We dealt with that by acting out the orbit of the Earth and the Sun as partnerships in various corners of the room. Then we compared our ideas and arrived at a community consensus that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. This wasn’t “proof” in any scientific sense, but everyone had heard that this was the case, so could accept the idea once they had acted it out and they could see why it looks like the Sun is orbiting the Earth each day.
  5. One teaching associate who visited the classroom during one of those days later told me that she thought that she had the reasons for the season wrong after our discussion. That worried me!

Tell Me a Story, Putting Ideas into Words in Science Class

A student writing The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

A student writes The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowLast year I read Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book about the two main thinking pathways in the brain. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of this work for my teaching. One of Kahenman’s main points is that our brains are basically wired to create stories; we almost can’t NOT create them when presented with new information. The reasons for that are fascinating, and have to do with how much effort it takes to hold information in our working memories. But one takeaway from that work, for me, was that stories are a device to help us to see, and to remember, the relationships among large amounts of information.

Minds Made for StoriesRecently, I read Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories. He was also fascinated by the power of stories and how this is linked to who we are as humans. In a short conversation with me at the NCTE14 (thank you Vicki Vinton, for introducing me!), Newkirk conveyed his sense of awe at just how automatically we create stories, and what that might mean for how we read and write expository text.

Newkirk’s book is a great read and has formed the backbone of some of the teacher-inquiry that I’m doing in my classroom these days.

If our minds really ARE made for stories, then what does that mean for how I teach science? (Or reading, or writing…?) What if I offered students some compelling stories (or some compelling problems or questions) and then, crucially, cleared space for them to create and revise stories in class? What if these stories could become the containers for the new information they were learning? Might clearing space for learners to create stories be time well spent?

In a previous post, I wrote about reading together Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm’s, Buried Sunlight, in science class.1 As a culminating activity, in lieu of a “test” taken individually, I decided to give the kids a large piece of blank newsprint to be filled as a small group.

I gathered them around and outlined their task: tell me the story of fossil fuels, where they came from and what their presence means for us today. We brainstormed some key ideas that might need to be included in their story. Ideas like these — buried underground, plants, plankton, millions of years ago, carbon chains, photosynthesis, Sun’s energy — emerged from our short brainstorming session.

Then they set to work in groups of 3-4. My work was to roam the classroom helping groups figure out the big ideas they wanted to convey, how to work on a project like this effectively in a group, and to prod and probe their thinking as it evolved. I also documented their work through notes and photos.

What I observed was learning that deepened the more they dug into the task. I saw children grappling with how to put the ideas they had heard (and seen) through the interactive read aloud into their own words and their own drawings.

As they told and retold the story to themselves, they discovered parts of the story that did not hang together, places where they could not explain the cause of an effect, or a step in a process, or describe well enough the world they sought to draw on the paper. That brought them back to the text — one copy for the entire classroom! — which they gathered around to re-read and re-interpret.2

The posters that emerged were different, though the story was the same. As they presented their work to each other (we did a gallery walk around the classroom) the students remarked on these differences and looked closely at the drawings that each group had produced.

Here's one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

Here’s one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

The other adults who come into our classroom and I felt that this activity helped ALL of the children reach a deeper level of understanding. Did everyone understand everything at the same level? No. But those who struggled with understanding the information came to see the links between the pieces of information to a greater depth. I think it was because they got the chance to place the information in the context of a story that the relationships between the parts were made more explicit. And, because it was done collaboratively, the children couldn’t just tell any story (perhaps filled with inaccuracies and gaps), they had to tell a version that “held up” to the scrutiny of their community of scientists, their fellow classmates.3

I came away with a greater sense of how important it is for me to make the stories in science class very explicit, to highlight, not bury, the problem, conflict, question, or oddity that brings us to study what we are studying. But I also learned that I need to clear space for the children to put their ideas into words, and, crucially, to give them the opportunity to collaborate and revise as they create the stories that will become the vessel that contains the new information they are learning.

  1. I stayed away from the textbook version of this big idea for fear that it would do more harm than good. Thomas Newkirk has a great chapter in Minds Made for Stories about textbook writing and how it intentionally buries the story (for lots of reasons), which makes textbooks incredibly difficult to understand. A reader has to read very actively (and have lots of background information) in order to figure out the problem, question, or oddity — the story — that lies underneath the desiccated textbook language.
  2. I’m kind of glad that we only had one text. It forced the kids to move from table to table, which, I observed, helped foster a “cross-pollination” of ideas. Scarcity also seemed to raise the value of the text, too. It became a sought after commodity. “Where’s the book?” was a question often heard throughout the two days we worked on this project.
  3. In this way the process mirrors the scientific method.

Reading Buried Sunlight in Science Class

SDMS 2nd Co14120117010_0001I love Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm’s new book, Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels have Changes the Earth. I’m reading it in science class because it does such a wonderful job of describing some key science concepts.

The book lays out the processes whereby the energy from the sun, millions of years ago, became the fossil fuels we use today.

Bang and Chisholm outline the way human use of these resources is changing the carbon balance in the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby increasing its capacity to hold heat.

As a science teacher at the upper elementary early/middle school level, I love the way they explain key science concepts so well. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the concepts that they make understandable. This clarity and accuracy make it a great interactive read aloud to do with the children.

Big Idea 1. Photosynthesis stores energy from the sun in the chemical bonds within the carbon chains.

This concept is crucial for understanding how energy flows within ecosystems.1 Everyone knows that plants create food, but not many of us have thought very deeply about what that means. As Bang notes, plants use the Sun’s energy to create (synthesize) long carbon chains, thereby effectively storing the energy in these chemical bonds.2 When Bang states this crucial connection so plainly, it is so much easier to reconcile photosynthesis with the Law of the Conservation of Energy, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can be changed from one form into another. Photons of energy from the sun get changed into chemical energy stored in the bonds of carbon chains. Cool beans. And it so wonderful to have a text that helps children see the synthesis part of photosynthesis, how really understanding it helps us see how energy is stored and then transferred through ecosystems or, in resources like fossil fuels.

Big Idea 2. Animals break down long carbon chains into carbon dioxide by “burning” it with oxygen. Where does our food go once we’ve eaten it? If you ask someone that question, many will say it either gets turned into more body mass (that happened this Thanksgiving!) or excreted, yup, as poop. But many don’t think about how a large portion of that food (those long carbon chains) is disassembled (burned, really) to release the energy stored in the bonds between the atoms. A by-product from this destruction is the carbon-dioxide we breathe out. We had a great discussion today about that Cycle of Life in science class. We came to see that animals basically destroy the carefully constructed carbon chains that plants make (the way your 2-year old brother destroys your Lego structure); plants take the small pieces of carbon-dioxide and make more carbon chains (the way you carefully build up another structure from the strewn pieces.) And that happens over and over and over again.

Big Idea 3. Plant tissues are made mostly of air. Now that’s hard to imagine. A few years ago the Annenberg Foundation asked Harvard graduates where the mass present in wood came from (See this link to A Private Universe.) Many responded that the mass came from the soil, even though they had studied photosynthesis in high school and college. Bang’s text makes it clear that plant tissues, including wood, actually comes from carbon dioxide, which is a colorless GAS, not a solid like soil. That’s counter-intuitive; it’s hard to believe that something solid and hard, like a piece of wood, can be created from thin air. But it is.

You can see that misconception is still alive in this video from the fine science YouTube video channel: Veritasium.

Big Idea 4. Global Climate change happens all the time, but this time it is happening FAST! Global climate change skeptics often argue that climate change happens all the time, so this is just one more example of how Ice Ages come and warm spells go. Bang makes it really clear that while this is true, the rate of change is tremendously fast. And that quickness creates problems that the other change events did not create. This is another crucial idea that Bang’s text makes really clear.

Big Idea 5. Humans have a choice. I love the way the book ends: “Or will you work together to use my ancient sunlight more slowly, find other sources of energy, and invent new way to thin the blanket of CO2? The choice is yours.”

And, yes, the choice is ours.

Thanks, Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, for your choice to write this book.

  1. The idea of energy flow is difficult to understand, and is one of the Next Generation Science Standards for fifth grade. But Bang’s book makes it clear that most of the energy that enters the food chain came from the sun at first.
  2. One student in today’s class said: “Hmmm…that means that this stored energy is kind of like a battery, isn’t it?” Which is a really key conceptual understanding of the way energy is either used to create motion, or it is stored somehow in “battery” form. Wow.