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.

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.

The School of the Outdoors

Long time, no post. My move to fifth grade has been good for me, but the change in routine took a long, I mean, a long-long time to get used to. The bell marking the end of class was the crucial factor for me, which necessitated some pretty serious thinking about learning and how I fit into a system of bells and measured time. I may reflect on what the move taught me in subsequent posts.

For now, though, school’s out for summer, I’m back from a six-day paddle in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northern Minnesota, and I’m getting ready for a week-long workshop on inquiry-based science.

I’m reminded of how much I learn about the world and myself by just being outside for long stretches of time.

I wish I could take the kids out on a field trip to such a place as the BWCAW. We saw a moose feeding at the edge of the lake (how immense they are!); what appeared to be a lone trumpeter swan spend the afternoon in the bay, then trumpet and lift off a little after sunset; and many loons, like the ones in the video, who sang their mournful song at dusk.

We also saw mosses (my partner is teaching herself how to identify the different species), beautiful sedges in the woods, marshes, and along the lake edge, and the first flush of brilliant green aspen leaves against the darkness of the black spruce. Spring comes slowly to the north country.

We experienced several nights in the low 30s, the first black fly and mosquito hatch (oh boy!), and observed dragonfly larvae crawl from the cool lake waters, split open, then transform before our eyes. Even now, I have to catch myself. The dragonfly is BOTH the acrobatic aerialist who hunted mosquitoes gathered near my head AND the monstrous looking larva that crawls from the underwater world only to open and, like the crew members in the movie, Alien, disgorge a winged creature with a very long abdomen and a voracious appetite. Two worlds, two lives, one dragonfly.

Until you actually see the still-wet larva split open and the winged dragonfly emerge, life cycles are abstract ideas.

We pulled out for lunch on a piece of Canadian Shield (some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, the spine of the North American continent), then marveled at the work of the beaver, master builder, whose fur drew hordes of opportunists to the north country and became the tophats of the fashionable people in Europe.


Each night we read aloud an account of a canoe trip the author took in the 1950s that followed the old fur trade route from Grand Portage, MN to the Red River of the North.1 While not great literature, this book reminded me that what counts as a “good book” can be situational. Packed with first-hand accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries, I learned more about the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company, the XY Company, and the homme du nord than I had known before. While our fare was meager, it was nothing like the 1 quart of lyed corn cooked with pork grease that was the daily meal during the trip: “All the food that a man needs for 24 hours on the road.”

Small comfort, though, that three hundred years ago the fur traders cursed the black flies and mosquitoes, too.


Beth reads our travel narrative aloud from under her bug net.


  1. Bolz, Portage into the Past.

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.

What the Indian Grass Revealed — Some Thoughts on Learning in a Time of Standards

What should the children know and be able to do?

My teaching work is to design lessons around the answers to this question. And I do. But then, like the other day, something happens that reveals the vast chunk of learning that never made it into the standards. Yet, this is the learning that sometimes seems most important to me and causes me to remember that “career and college ready” does not encompass some of the most important learning in our classroom.

The week before Thanksgiving we spent some time writing descriptions. My goal was to help the children be able to organize their own thinking and their writing. They will use these skills as they write informational pieces later this month. From our work, they will be able to describe an object with precision and artfulness.

This seems a worthwhile set of skills to learn. I love elegant, clear thinking. Certainly this kind of precise thinking and writing would be a boon in most careers; colleges might really groove on those, too, though sometimes I wonder if artfulness might be less well appreciated in many careers and colleges.

Big Blue WhaleWe began by studying several of Seymour Simon’s descriptions. You can pick just about any of his books since they are filled with great description. We ended our study with Nicola Davies’ short description of the outside of a blue whale from her book, Big Blue Whale.

The blue whale is big. Bigger than a giraffe. Bigger than an elephant. Bigger than a dinosaur. The blue whale is the biggest creature that has ever lived on Earth!

Reach out and touch the blue whale’s skin. It’s springy and smooth like a hard-boiled egg, and it’s slippery as wet soap. Look into its eye. It’s as big as a teacup and as dark as the deep sea. Just behind the eye is a hole as small as the end of a pencil. The hole is one of the blue whale’s ears — sticking-out ears would get in the way when the whale is swimming.

We noticed the way Simon and Davies started big — to give an overview of the object to be described, to help the reader see the big picture — before diving into the details. We noticed how good description is organized to help the reader assimilate this new information in an organized and logical fashion. We noticed how good description often uses comparisons to help a reader attach the unfamiliar to the familiar.

The more the children looked, the more they saw the art contained in a good description.

Over the next several days, we described various items around the classroom, practicing our craft. Then, just to see what they would do, I brought in some cut stems of Indian grass, a large prairie grass that grows in the prairie  we are trying to grow on the hill near my house. I thought the children might be interested in this very large version of a common plant: grass.

Indian grass from the prairie on the hill above my house.

Indian grass from the prairie on the hill above my house.

They were.

IMG_0845 - Version 2The children each took a piece to study. They measured against the tiles on the floor; each stem was between 5 and 8 feet tall! They marveled at the size. They marveled at how different turf grass is from prairie grass. And how similar, too.

They looked carefully at how the grass was put together. They began to name the parts, because in order to describe well, you have to name the parts. This need to notice and name parts helped the children see why science is so dense with vocabulary. Scientists must look closely at things, name the parts they see, and then describe them clearly.

At first, the children only saw the stem and the seed head. Some saw the leaves, but these thin strips don’t look like what they are used to calling leaves. The more they looked, though, the more parts they saw. They did not know the technical terms for all of the parts, but to describe well, they needed to call them something. So they set out as explorers, naming the new lands they saw. For instance, what are you going to call the little “hairs” that protrude from the flattened end of the seed? I urged them to think of the function these “hairs” might serve, and then give them a name that reflects that purpose. (Seed stickers. Seed grabbers. Seed attachers. These were some of the part-names they came up with.)

As they sketched, as they wrote, they began to see the wonder contained in the supposedly simple things around them.

Some saw how the large structures they noticed first (the long stem, for instance) are actually made from ever smaller structures, and these were made from even smaller structures, and so on. The more you looked, the more you saw. Where do you stop with your noticing? With your naming?

The stem is hollow! What do I call that hollow? Is it used for anything, or is it just hollow?

Did you notice the stem has sections? There are joints that separate those sections! It’s like the stem grows up to a certain point and then decides to stop and then it starts growing all over again!

The stem wall has all of these little strands of fiber in them. I wonder what they do? What are they for?

Some saw the connections between this grass and other plants they knew. (Some are farmers, after all.)

Indian grass looks a lot like corn, except the seeds are not all put together in a cob like corn, but in a spray of seeds. The leaves and the stem look like corn though.

Others began to see the overall symmetry of the basic grass design.

Did you know that Indian grass has the same pattern that repeats itself all the way up the stem? Each segment fits into the segment below it.

If you look at the seed head, even those tiny stalks that hold the seeds look just like the stem. They have all these little joints, but they are not nearly as big around as the stem farther down.

I wonder how the Indian grass knows how to stop growing up and when to start making a seed head?

Some saw patterns in the way the leaves came off the stem. Some, even wondered whether you could even call these leaves, since it looked like they were at one time part of the stem. Is a leaf a leaf? A stem a stem? When does one become the other?

I noticed that the leaves start at these joints and wrap themselves around the stem. Maybe they aren’t even different than the stem? But then they grow for awhile and separate from the stem. Why? How can a stem become a leaf?

When the children got to this stage in our investigation, it seemed to me that something special was happening. I told them that they were noticing things that only people who study plants, who look very closely at them, notice. And they were asking questions that no one knows the answer to, but scientists are very interesting in knowing these answers. “What, exactly, causes a plant to stop growing up and start to grow a seed head? What causes anything to change? What causes you to change? To grow?” These are important questions, important observations. I congratulated them.

For a moment, I stood there amidst the clamor watching the children run from plant to plant as they showed each other the discoveries they made. We’ll get back to the description, I thought to myself. But right then what seemed most important was to honor the curiosity bubbling through the room. And I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder how this kind of endeavor gets turned into an “I can…” statement, then packaged as a “skill” to be mastered.

So this time of learning, of exploration came, and then it went. And it DID take time; these moments don’t come free. If the moments we spent looking at grass, I mean really looking at grass, were “billable” hours in the great race to the top, under what standard would the Grand Accountant code them?

And yet, I know these times are important precisely because they reach so deeply inside.

Reflections on NCTE14


Street art in Valparaiso, Chile. (photo by Steve Peterson)

Wow. I am now just back from attending the NCTE14 convention in Washington DC. This was my first time at an NCTE convention; it was a time to remember. While a more competent band of souls could not possibly assemble ever, anywhere, what struck me was how these excellent teachers were oh-so-willing to learn more, to dream about how they might make their own classrooms even better places for every learner. I felt connected to kindred souls, and that left me sometimes kind of misty-eyed.

My first day of learning was devoted to several panels that looked at inquiry-based learning, a subject near and dear to my heart. While I believe that inquiry-based learning is one superb way to provide the “why” that kids (and teachers) need for what they do, I have not been able to pull it all together to make long-term inquiry units happen in my classroom. I’m a bit on my own in this regard in my district. The sessions I attended helped me imagine ways I could bring more inquiry into my own classroom by showing me folks who are actually doing it themselves.

Other sessions focused on the great thinking that is happening now about engaging children with informational texts. I’m heartened to see that so many people are thinking of how to do this better. I have much work to do myself. Though I love informational text maybe even more than the next person, my kids do not read it as often as I have hoped.

By chance (and the generosity of Heidi, poet/kindergarten teacher from the teacher blog,  my juicy little universe) I was able to attend the Children’s Literature lunch, featuring Jacqueline Woodson. I could listen to Woodson read from her book, Brown Girl Dreaming, for as long as it took her to finish (and then I’d ask her to read it all over again.)

Clara LemlichHow did Chance know that I should sit at a table with Michelle Markel, author of a biography of Clara Lemlich (Brave Girl), one of the leaders of the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909? This ol’ labor historian and labor organizer was in heaven.

Finally, what brought me to the NCTE in the first place was that I presented as part of a panel with three other teachers from around the country: Mary Lee Hahn, Fran McVeigh, and Julieanne Harmatz, which favorite teacher-author, Vicki Vinton, pulled together. Each of us explored ideas from our classroom that we have been thinking about recently: Mary Lee’s work with student blogging and the amazing work she has done to build a community of writers; Fran’s fascinating exploration of how 3rd graders and teachers read the same children’s text, and the differences in their reactions; Julieanne’s research into how students respond to read aloud and independent reading caused her to make adjustments to help students in both realms; and my early-stage inquiry about how I teach informational text is helping me to rethink my teaching so I might help students see the larger meanings in the texts they read.

Though I had never actually met these folks face to face until the day before our session, within minutes after our first meeting I felt a strange sense of familiarity, as if I had known them for years. I suppose that I have; our writing has helped us to know each other. And that’s one of the other wonders that came from this time in DC — how writing about my classroom, and reading and commenting on the work of others — has helped to turn on that metaphorical “reading lamp” inside (the dog) of my classroom, and has helped me make connections to other educators who are committed to being the absolute best teachers they can be. (I felt a similar connection when I first met Jan Miller Burkins and Kim Yaris — see their terrific blog, Burkins and Yaris — both generous souls and smart, smart, smart. I’ll write more about their book, Reading Wellness soon.)

So now back to school. I have some new ideas and some renewed energy, which ain’t bad for a weekend’s work.

From left: Mary Lee, Vicki, Julieanne, Fran, me

From left: Mary Lee, Vicki, Julieanne, Fran, me

At the End of First Quarter, a Time to Reflect


My first quarter of fifth grade is over and it is time to reflect. This is scary because the transition has been difficult for me and I’m afraid I haven’t done all that well. The good part is that there is room for improvement. This post will look at how I have tried to deal with the idea of a single grade report for each “subject.” I hope that this reflection will help me make some positive changes in the future. My next post will talk more about how I have struggled with bells that disrupt thinking, the short learning periods that result, and what I have tried to do to make learning deeper and more authentic.

Grades have been one major bugaboo this year. In elementary school, where I come from, we didn’t report grades, but handed parents a rubric that reported a child’s path toward grade level expectations on a variety of standards. 1 Our middle school uses a Pearson developed web-based Grade Book system. Grades are calculated based on “assignments” entered into the book. There is little or no room for narratives that describe student progress, or for other forms of documentation of student learning. Furthermore, the grade book averages these scores to attain a final grade, which goes against my sense that learning should not have to happen on a time schedule. I do not want to penalize one learner for arriving later than another, nor do I want to send a message to learners that there is a single path to follow or a single destination.

A significant amount of my time this quarter has been devoted to figuring out how I can mesh my values with this system. So, after some effort my esteemed colleague, Heath, and I have developed a rough draft of a standards-based rubric for reading and writing so we can report progress to parents and students. 2 We developed these after looking at the IA Core reading and writing standards, with an eye toward trimming them down to some of the most important ideas within the standards. 3

While just an early draft and still a rubric (see footnote #1 below about rubrics), I hope to eventually move beyond this toward to some kind of challenge-based tasks that are more real and meaningful than simply documenting progress toward someone else’s standards. Both students and teachers could eventually collect these documents and describe the learning that happened and the next steps. Perhaps we could even link these collections and reflections through our Pearson GradeBook site so it would simply serve as just a “shell” to house a link to our real documentation of student learning. 4 I have not figured out what changes I need to request in order to make that kind of linking to happen.

First quarter was rocky in part because I developed the rubric as the quarter was moving along. As a result, the rubric did not guide our learning during the quarter (and documentation could only be done by me, and was rarely shared with students…sigh); it evolved as I learned about the constraints of my new situation. To improve, my goal is to present the second quarter rubrics to learners this week. We’ll unpack them slowly together, and brainstorm ways we could document our learning. If I can do this, I imagine it will help to insulate us from having to post and complete numerous “I can…” statements over the course of the quarter. It might also allow us to develop some smaller projects/challenges/inquiries that could provide the context for our learning and our reflection. 5

*     *     *     *     *

I bought a great book recently, Lost in Translation, which contains about 50 words from many languages all that cannot be translated into English. One of my favorite words is the Hindi word: jugaad, a noun meaning (sort of) the sense that the project will get done despite the fact that when the project started, the resources may not have been sufficient to complete the task. I’m thinking that jugaad might be a word I need right now.


  1. While standards-based reporting is much better than reporting a single grade for a subject area, I am more radical than most when I rebel against even this amount of “standardization” of learning. I share some of Alfie Kohn’s thinking about some of the problems with standardization of learning. I know. I’m an idealist, but there should be a place in the learning universe for us, too. I will probably always feel a disconnect between my work in public education and what I know about deep learning.
  2. Many thanks to my principal, Leona, for clearing the space for this experimentation. When you hear this from your principal, you know you have a good one: “So what I’m hearing is that you need some time and space to try this, maybe fail, and then try again? You got it.”
  3. Most certainly we haven’t achieved our goal, but we are farther along than if we hadn’t tried. You can see what we have done for writing and reading.
  4. Linking from the Pearson site would be a delightfully ironic twist.
  5. I am learning how the constraints that bells and short learning periods — 43 minutes — influence the kind of thinking that we do together. I have a much greater sense of how important it will be to really engage students in their own learning. Forty-three minute periods have an amazing ability to generate passivity.

Starting our Weather Unit with Questions

I have been trying to incorporate student questions into the work we are doing in science class, which seems like it should be a place where questions should dominate.

But it’s been difficult.

I have a whole raft of reasons why, during our recent unit on plate tectonics and the rock cycle, I did not ask students to generate questions but came at them with some of my own, instead. For example: How do I manage three sections of student questions? How can I get the children to engage with the concepts that assessments will require them to know when the questions that will drive our learning come from them, not the “curriculum?” How can I help the children learn to ask questions at all? Will they be any good?

Any one of these was enough to derail me.

Circles / Círculos (Abstracción 011)
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Claudio.Ar via Compfight

Despite these worries, as my next unit on weather and climate was taking shape I decided that I shouldn’t let my fears/anxieties rule me. So, we started out our learning with the protocol suggested by The Right Question Institute and asked us some questions.

First, I thought of a focus statement that I figured would allow us to focus our inquiry on some of the key concepts about the atmosphere and how it creates different weather and climates. That was difficult, and I know I can do better next time, but here’s what I came up with:

It is sunny and warm today, but by Wednesday rain will fall from a cloudy sky.

Then, I set the kids loose to ask questions. Using the four rules outlined by The Right Question Institute, they generated a long list in a few minutes. After the initial brainstorming, we paused to determine if they were “open” or “closed” and then to change a few from closed to open, and open to closed. (Open questions require extended learning, research, or discussion to answer. Closed ones can be answered in a word or two.)

An interesting discussion came out of that process. Most groups created far more “open” questions than closed ones, and indicated that they thought open questions were “better” than closed ones. But as we talked, we came to see that closed questions might actually be at the root of the scientific method. And, besides, it’s nice to get a definitive answer sometimes!

While an open question like “Why can it rain one day and not the other?” might require an in depth look at what causes rain, and also what causes weather to be patchy across the landscape, scientific understanding is often built through a series of answers to “closed” questions like the following:

  • Will it rain tomorrow?
  • Does a north wind always follow rain?
  • Does rain always follow a drop in air pressure?

(By the way, these are the questions that are starting to come up as we collect weather data for our town.1)

From answering questions like these (through observation and data gathering), we can develop the kind of general understandings that are at the heart of how new scientific knowledge is created. We begin to gather data and see patterns: Yes, our observation/data suggests this always happens. No, this does not always happen. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. But under all circumstance, each answer points us toward asking more questions and gathering more data.

After we played with changing the question form, I asked the children to prioritize the questions they had created, telling them that the questions they picked would help drive our unit of study. My criteria was open-ended: Choose five questions that you think are most important. Now narrow that to two. Have reasons for why you think they are important. 

The students presented their choices and their rationale to the rest of the class.

The priority questions from the three classes ran the gamut, but showed a remarkable similarity, too.

Students thought important questions were related to dangers from weather, so there were questions like these: Will the river rise and flood? Will lightning strike? Why does lightning strike metal?

Or about the inconvenience of the rain: When will it rain, exactly? Will it rain all day?

There were also other questions like these: How can it rain one day and not the other? Why does it rain some places on the Earth but not other places? What causes it to rain? Where does the water come from?

We are using some of these later questions to structure the larger learning unit. But as Wednesday came and went (and the rain came and came) the students were able to answer some of the “convenience/inconvenience” questions, and I could see that they paid more attention to the weather because they wanted to answer their questions.

While the Upper Iowa River that runs through our town did not rise much, the students (and I) paid more attention to the way runoff changed the flow of the small creek that runs behind the school.2 For instance, on my way to the parking lot on Thursday afternoon, I paused to shoot a video of the creek. Would I have done that if the children had not asked a question about the river rising? Probably not.

Finally, because we spent two days on questions, and the children got to talk more, I got a better sense of what they do and do not know about the atmosphere. Their questions taught me some things. For instance, tomorrow we will take a little side-trip into what a gas is, so we can then talk about atmospheric pressure, because without knowing about air pressure, they won’t be able to more deeply understand fundamental concepts about wind and where clouds come from.

Would I have known that without taking time for questions? Again, probably not. And even if I did, it would have been much more difficult for me to situate the concepts in a context that would engage the students. I think the questions will help them see the connections better.

I am still worried about how to assess the student learning because the concepts we will learn are more wide-ranging (from states of matter and how gases act, to graphing, to air pressure, to what causes climates to differ) than they would be if I had done things in a more traditional way. But…it does feel good, and it is interesting so I guess we’ll have to figure out as we go what will be the end result of our learning.

An interesting process, this.

UPDATE: By the way, earth: an animated map of global weather conditions is a terrific tool to get kids wondering. I check it out several times a week. Mesmerizing.

  1. These questions would likely not have emerged if we had not had the opportunity to ask questions early in the unit. I can’t know that for sure, but I do see a difference in the willingness of the children to spontaneously ask questions like these.
  2. One child even made some good connections back to the learning we did about sediments and erosion from our last learning unit!

Gathering Evidence, Making Judgments

I use Evernote to record some of my reading conferences. I approach a child while she is reading, then record her reading and our conversation about the book. Later, I take a chunk of time after school to focus my mind and attention on that child via the digital trail I have collected. Often I jot some notes, kind of a freewrite about what I notice. This practice always helps me see that child in a new light, and causes me to connect with things that I had noticed in other settings, but had not recorded.

When I sat down to review some of the notes yesterday I had collected over the last couple of weeks, I expected to learn something. And I did. But this time what I learned was about me, the other voice on the recording.

What I heard was a guy who started out conversations pretty well. I heard questions like these: So, you’ve just read this piece, what are you thinking now? Or, What’s going through your mind right now? These questions often lead to some good conversations, though sometimes rather slowly. (I suspect that the children have not had a lot of practice with these kind of conversations with teachers.)

But I noticed that in the last several weeks my questions have evolved. Whereas I might have said: Tell me more about that. Or, How did you figure that out? I heard myself saying things like this: Don’t you think that…? I thought…What do you think? I thought X, do you see that, too?

While sometimes those observations provoked further thinking, too often there was an awkward silence that followed. I could tell the children did not know what to do with my observation, or my connection.

So, I asked myself: Why did I change the way I talk, especially when the change was for the worse?

This morning I’ve been thinking about that. And it seems clear that I am struggling a bit with the constraints of my new work, my move from 4th to 5th grade. That change brought some new time constraints like 43-minute reading and writing periods where bells ring and kids move. I’m accustomed to longer pieces of time, a more leisurely approach to learning.

Another reason is that middle school emphasizes grades (rather than descriptive narratives) as a way to provide response to student work. Grades are designed to sort. Narratives describe and probe. That change has been difficult enough for me. I’m a nurturer, not a sorter by nature. But as I reflect, I can see that the fact that I have to assign grades has pushed me to “justify” my sorting. Hence the desire to “prove” what I think by seeing if the children can “do” certain things related to the standards that I am to teach.

What resulted from my cognitive dissonance was that I changed the idea of what a conference was. Where I had thought of a conference as an opportunity to see how children were thinking and to respond as a human being to that thinking, I came to see these conferences as a place to “assess”, to gather evidence, to justify a judgment that I was making about the child. All this represents a different kind of curiosity, less open-ended. Less the explorer of unknown terrain, more the tracker, the travel guide.

The time constraints of a short class period changed the nature of the time, too. Gone was the leisurely exploration. I heard in my voice the haste of trying to nail a teaching point.


I don’t have an answer about what to do next, but I suspect that it will come through the doorway opened by Tom Newkirk in his wonderful book, Minds are Made for Stories:

“There are few unqualified generalizations we can make about great teaching. But I will hazard this one: great teachers don’t look rushed, and they don’t make their students feel rushed.” (p. 153.)

Rendez-vous à Fontaine de Vaucluse
Photo Credit: decar66 via Compfight

Some (quick) Thoughts on Learning and Social Identity

A tweet tumbled through the electronic mail slot this evening, one that sent me on one of those idea-chases that impart some of of the savory taste to life. Maria Popova from the Brain Pickings Project1 pulled a snippet from neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman talking about persuasion:

“You might think that the things that get people to change their behavior are things that are memorable, that they can use their analytical brain to set down a long-term trace, or even just emotional, but surprisingly what we see is the brain regions that seem to be involved in successful persuasion. We can predict who will use more sunscreen next week based on how their brain responds to an ad today. The brain regions that seem to be critical to that are brain regions involved in social thinking, in thinking about yourself and thinking about other people. So this seems to be more about our identity and the identities that we’re capable of trying on. If I can’t try on the identity that you’re suggesting to me—being a sunscreen-using person, or a nonsmoker, or something like that—the ad is much less likely to stick.” (bold is mine.)

Which got me thinking about those reluctant readers and writers I have known over the years and how their inclusion in the world of literate souls really does seem to depend on whether they can see themselves in that literate place, or not. Can I adopt that identity? Can I imagine myself living there?

Which, in turn, helps me to see that perhaps my biggest value as a teacher is not the skills I teach them, or the standards we reach for together, but to be the boatman at the river, the one who readies the ship they might use to sail the self they are now toward the self they might become. To help provoke that fundamentally imaginative exercise: If I were that kind of person, what would it be like?

And, frankly, humans are better at this than robots. Yet another reason to keep the heart and ears open.

A Mesmerizing Contraption
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Leontine Greenberg via Compfight

  1. Thank you, Jan Miller Burkins and Mary Lee Hahn, for turning me on to the website.