Dragonfly Research, or, Science That Doesn’t Fly Straight

I’m here to report out about the results from our impromptu research project on dragronflies. It started as simply an interesting observation that I made one day last week, an observation that I thought might offer a good way to practice some question-asking protocols developed by The Right Question Institute. I reported on the early stages in this recent post.

Rather than write out this story, I decided to tell it verbally in the manner we told it to ourselves in science class. Using a flowchart that depicts the scientific process, we logged our pathway through what we soon saw as a maze of connections. The story includes moments of seeming failure when it appeared the project would need to be abandoned, to moments of insight. (It also includes a bee sting to the rear end of a certain researcher…)

In the end (pun intended), I think the project helped the children see how science does not proceed in a linear path from question to data gathering to data analysis to presentation. It is much messier. Several times we had to regroup and learn new information in order to figure out where to go next. Sometimes we even thought we’d reached the end of what we could learn.

Finally, since I’m reading Tom Newkirk’s wonderful book, Minds are Made for Stories, (and, like Newkirk, I have puzzled about the implications of David Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow) I’m very happy to present this story as what it was, a story. What caused us to return to this project was the fact that we had developed a “need to know,” to complete the narrative in some way. If not to simply answer our question, at least to arrive at some satisfactory place to rest.

The result is a view of the scientific process that looks a lot like a dragonfly’s flight path, veering purposefully and flexibly from one place to the next.

And here is a short video of the common green darner.

And a video that shows some of the remarkable aerial abilities of dragonflies. I saw some of these stunts in my sit in the prairie.

Can I create I Can… Statements?

I have struggled with the idea of posting “I can…” statements on the board . To me, statements like this seem dry and lifeless: “I can use the information from my reading and what I know to draw conclusions and make inferences.” A quick (and far from exhaustive) Google search revealed “I can…” statements for all fifth grade subject areas that ranged in number from 86 to well over 100. Divided into 180 days or so, that’s at least one “I can…” statement every day or two.

Surely that’s too much stuff to learn in too short of a time. For instance, “I can summarize grade level text.” takes a long, long time to do well. I remember teaching college students who had a difficult time with that one. If the purpose of the “I can…” statements is to focus the learner’s attention and energy on what really matters, then how much focus can a learner give if that much stuff keeps on coming and coming and coming, day after day after day? Will students even remember what they “could do” a month later? A year later? Do near daily “I can…” statements actually (and perversely) create learner passivity, rather than learners who explore, inquire, create, and, well, learn?

And what might all of those “I can…” statements do to my teaching? Do I begin to see my teaching as a series of little lessons designed to teach over 100 specific skills spread out over the year so that I can fit them all in? For what larger purpose? And is that purpose clear to the children? Are they on board?

All that's left of the black and red raspberry pie that I made the other day.

All that’s left of the black and red raspberry pie that I made the other day. No lard, just butter and vegetable shortening, though, truth be told, lard makes great pie crust and we have it abundance here in IA.

Then an idea came to me while I was sitting around the dining room table eating pie and planning with my teacher friends Megan and Sara. It began with a question I posed to myself: What do I really want the kids to know and be able to do? What if I had only one “I can…” statement, what would it be? What would that single statement do to my teaching? To the kids’ learning? So I came up with this:

I can read attentively, write powerfully, question deeply, think clearly, and act ethically so that I can make a better world and a better me.

This “uber-I can…” begs questions like these: What does it mean to read attentively? How can I read more attentively? How does attentive reading connect with powerful writing? With deep questions? How does attentive reading make me a better person?

How do I write powerfully? What does powerful writing have to do with acting ethically? With creating a better world?

What does it mean to act ethically in school? How does ethical action connect with making me a better person? With asking deep and profound questions? With attentive reading?

Stuff like that. With this “I can…” the year takes on an exegetical feel, one based on a central hope to build a better world and a better me. Which makes me feel a bit better because these questions seem like they are worth pursuing.

Can we learn to write powerfully? Sure. We’ll study the writing of others. We’ll study our own. We’ll write a lot. Why? So we can use it to build something better — a better world, a better me.

Can we learn to read attentively? You betcha. We’ll try very hard to discern the central meanings an author wishes to convey. We’ll understand the power and the beauty that comes from that awesome act of communication.1 We’ll connect it to our writing, to our thinking, to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Can we come to see ethical action as part of our learning? Yes. It happens every year. Without that, there is no community, and reading and writing and thinking go out the window.

So, maybe this is a way that “I can enter the world of I can… statements?”

  1. I sometimes introduce the act of writing by telling the children the Ojibwe word Mazina’igan, which means “talking paper.” I’ll write a message on a piece of paper, give it to a child, and the class will watch that child do some simple task, all in silence, as a way to show them that writing is an awesome act of communication across distance. A marvelous invention, this written language, and a powerful force that connects people.

Next Year Begins with Playfulness

Last year I noticed that we seemed to improve our thinking about literature after I had introduced the children to the idea of figurative language, in particular, the idea of metaphor. After some practice, we began to see how authors used metaphors or other comparative devices of one sort or the other — symbols, similes, analogies, personification — to convey meaning. I wrote about our exploration of a particular image in the graphic novel, The Arrival, and our playing with metaphor in Valerie Worth’s poem, fence.

In the past, I’ve introduced figurative language later in the year as we gear up for a unit or two on poetry. When I start fifth grade this year I plan to introduce the idea of metaphor (or, more generally, comparison) earlier, maybe even in the first week, so we can use these idea to talk and think about texts over the course of the year. At its root I believe figurative language is about playfulness. And that’s the point I really want to make from the get-go next year.

Dark emperorLast year we enjoyed Joyce Sidman’s poetry, in particular her book Dark Emperor. Her poetry offers a playfulness with language, a delightful use of personification, and a serious number of wonderful metaphors to feel, study, and talk about. I wanted more.

Earlier this summer I ordered a whole bunch more of Sidman’s poetry books. They just arrived.

IMG_0443One new book would be perfect for an early-in-the-year introduction to figurative language (and playfulness in general.) That book is Red Sings from Treetops: a year in colors. Gorgeously illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, Sidman’s poetry explores how colors, even the meaning of colors, changes over the course of the year.


Using the language of colors (green, red, purple, white…) Sidman’s writing invites the reader to see these ordinary words in new ways, as creatures with their own lives. A rich emotional landscape emerges from her play.


A book of poems like that would be good enough. But in Red Sings perspective is also important. Can you imagine introducing the concept of perspective by exploring how the meaning of colors change depending on the season they are experienced? How does green look or feel in the fall?


Of course, often my favorite color-explorations are those that lie in the shadows. Chiaroscuro describes my perspective on life.

The darkness.


And the light.


Red Sings is packed with poems that not only invite the reader to think about color in new ways, but to see how color (green, for instance) has different meanings when seen from different perspectives. Awesome.

All this fits with some other reading I’ve been doing on how we learn. Work by Daniel Willingham, Daniel Kahneman, Peter Brown, et al, and a book I’m reading now (A More Beautiful Question) all connect learning to the  learner’s active manipulation of new information. To learn well, a learner has to engage her mind in a quest of some sort, often to answer a question or explain something puzzling or incongruous. This quest requires the learner to pick up and examine the new information with an open and searching mind; to have both the time and the inclination to play and to experiment; to connect and compare new information with other things she has learned or thought she knew; to ask the big questions that emerge from curiosity and interest: Why?/What If?/How?

I can’t think of a better way to begin that process of playful questioning than to experience how writers play with language, how they pick up and examine common words (like colors) and ideas like the seasons we have all experienced in order to arrive at fresh ideas about things that we thought were so familiar.

On Seeing Slowly — What the Children’s Poetry Taught Me This Year

The year ended. I packed up my room for a move to fifth grade and am just now back from a trip to Chile (more about that later). Finally, after all of that I have a bit of time to think back on the end of the school year and to celebrate some awesome poetry that the kids wrote this year.

I was impressed with the level of observation that the children brought to their poetry writing. For instance, these poems came from a photo prompt (taken from the National Geographic photo archive) that captured a lightning strike on the prairie.



And J’s:



What impressed me about these poems was not just the way the children tried to capture the dramatic image of the lightning, but the way they tried to work that image into something larger (a mood or feeling) that the image helped to generate. G’s poem became a meditation, using repetition and a really cool comparative device that I don’t have a name for (“Vikings say…”, “Greeks say…”, “But I say…”) I was struck by how contemplative and quiet G’s poem was.

J’s poem, on the other hand, dropped the reader right into the drama of the photograph through superb word choice and the use of personification. (I really do love her imagination. Wow. She’s a good poet already at just ten years old.)

Other poems emerged from a couple of trips we took to the creek that runs behind our school. Sure the creek is controlled and channeled (as is too much of school, frankly), but we practiced watching and waiting and noticing all of the small creatures that seem to disrupt even the most controlled environment — spiders and ants, violets and bladder campion, minnows, scuds, and water striders. Heck, some kids even found the rolling, roiling movement of the sediment carried by the current, and the play of the sun off the water’s surface sufficiently inspiring to write about!

There’s a poem here, even in the darkness of that culvert.

L’s poems lingered, floating on the current…



…to places far beyond our backyard. (Did knowing that the Japanese poet Issa wrote over 250 poems about frogs — and about 150 about dragonflies — help L. write at least two about the creek’s current?)


E.’s imaginary encounter — deer and wolf — happened during a moment of reverie near the creek.


I was interested to see poems come from books we had read. Another of E’s poems, Dark, came at least in part from our read aloud, The Dark, by Lemony Snickett. Snickett’s personification of Darkness captured E’s imagination. But E. did the rest, building tension by varying his line breaks and choosing words to heighten the drama for the encounter between Darkness and Light.


Other poems came from objects the children and I brought in to school. A robin’s egg that I found on the path in the woods behind our house became inspiration for J’s haiku, which nailed the “twist” that haiku poets like to put in their poems.


Still others found in poetry a way to connect with their funny side. A’s dry sense of humor shines through in this pet store poem that uses questions, repetition, and the blank spaces between thoughts to communicate ideas beyond the words on the paper.


Or J, again, with her love of cats. I love that last line (“fierce master of stripes”) and the first image, too. That “needle in a haystack” image came from her knowing that tiger stripes allow for good sneaking in tall grass.


So, what worked this year? I haven’t always gotten such good poems.

First, and mostly, the kids seemed open to the task. Maybe that’s because, at fourth grade, they are a bit older than I’m used to teaching. Surely that extra part of a year helped them experience how language has literal and figurative components.

Second, I resisted giving the children “forms” to write from. In the past as the children begin to bog down in their poetry writing, I would offer them mentor texts that have more of a formula for how to write a poem of that kind (for instance, W.C. William’s “This is just to say…”) or I would send them to some websites that offer a chance to write poems in a certain form for the kids to print them out. However, this year the only form I gave them was haiku (and that wasn’t really much of a form since I didn’t insist they follow a 5-7-5 format) and a lot of poems by authors like Valerie Worth, Joyce Sidman, and Laura Purdie Salas. I chose these poems because they looked at common ordinary things in ways that transformed them into the extraordinary.

Third, I spent the better part of March writing poems of my own using Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks and Tom Hennen’s Darkness Sticks to Everything as mentors. My goal was to pick an image a day, describe it, and see where the image brought me. I like Kooser’s and Hennen’s poetry because they are image based. Yet they use that deceivingly simple image as a window into something deeper, perhaps grander. Of course, I read the children selected poems of mine, including ones that I posted on this teacher blog. Some of my courage to resist giving the children formulaic poetry this year came directly from my experience writing from images myself. I knew they could push through to something interesting because, well, I had done that earlier.

Finally, throughout the year I tried to develop an awareness in the children of what the phrase “seeing slowly” might mean. Early in the year we developed a model for how we learn; noticing and thinking were central to that model. When it came time to write poetry, we already had a good sense of what it might look and feel like to slow down a bit and notice the world around us. We had practiced it in our reading, our writing, our talking and our listening. Maybe that attention to paying attention had something to do with the poetry that emerged at the end of the year.

I am happy that summer is here so I have a bit more time to think and write and just be in this big ol’ world. But when school starts up again, I will try to take what I learned about poetry and seeing and slowing down as I begin a new year in fifth grade next year.

Real Talk

A quick post this morning about a short conversation with a child that helped me see how he was thinking about a text he was reading. A conversation like this tells me so much more about what is going on in the mind of a child than does some norm-referenced number on a standardized test.

A boy, a very capable yet reluctant reader, came up to me and said:

Boy: Hey, I just got Gregor the Overlander from Kadin and I’m liking it.

Teach: Cool. He thought you might like it. I’m reading it now and I’m liking it, too. What do you like about it?

Boy: I’m noticing that it’s a lot like Amulet.

Teach: (I hadn’t thought about that before…) Hmm. What do you mean?

Boy: Well, in both the kids go into a basement and end up following a path into another world. Also, in both there’s a parent that’s missing. In Amulet the kids have to go after their mom that’s been taken away by this creature. They have to go try to save her. In Gregor, the kids fall into this hole into another world. I think they are going to find their father down there. Maybe they’ll have to try to save him, too.

Teach: So, I’m seeing the start of a theme here, are you? There’s something about kids being on their own, about the roles being reversed here. Parents usually take care of kids, right? Maybe these are different kinds of stories?

Boy: Yeah! The kids are the ones who do all of the really good stuff in Amulet. They have to save the parents.

Teach: And they discover they have something inside them that they didn’t know they had.

Boy: Yeah! Emily has the power of the stone. And Navin can drive all kinds of things. I wonder if Gregor and Boots will have some kind of powers?

Teach: That’s a good question. If the books are similar, maybe he will discover some power he didn’t know he had…When you’re reading keep that question in mind. Does Gregor (or Boots) have a power that makes it really important for them to have fallen down that hole? I’m curious now, too.

Also, you got me thinking about something else. In Amulet they arrive in a world that is in real trouble. They don’t really understand how much trouble it’s in right at first, but they eventually figure out that things aren’t really going well down there. I wonder if the world Gregor and Boots have fallen into is in trouble, too? What do you think?

Boy: It sure seems like it, but I haven’t read very far into it yet.

Teach: Well, maybe that’s another question to keep in mind as you are reading? Is there some trouble in the Underworld that Gregor needs to try to figure out? Let me know what you think as you read more, okay? Let’s talk more after we get farther into the book.

*  *  *  *  *

Several things struck me about this conversation. First, this boy is comparing books; that’s Common Core-y as my friend, Sara, says. Second, these books mean something to him, which is probably why he feels the desire to compare them. [He probably had a question like this in his mind: Why does this book feel like that book?] Third, our conversation was initiated by him and I entered it as a fellow explorer, rather than as a teacher-with-the-answers. True, I have more experience with these texts and so I pushed him to think about some stuff that he might not have come to on his own, but the flavor of the conversation was as a real conversation with give and take and discovery. And my push was tinged with the flavor of a fellow explorer.

Finally, as we talked a small group of other kids gathered to listen in and to add in their thoughts. They became fellow explorers, too. This momentary gathering of people helped this boy see that what he was saying about a book could be interesting to others, that ideas can hold attention. For me, it was another example of how important it is, in my interactions with the children, that I be a human being first and a pusher of curriculum second. It’s nice when these roles coincide. But if I have to choose, I’d choose the real talk, trusting that at its core are the elements necessary to build a better reader and thinking person.

On Gravity and the Regular Orbit of Comets

Tracker CoverA small group of guys and I have been reading Gary Paulsen’s book, Tracker, together.

Together? Well, maybe sometimes. Some of these particular boys orbit through group work like celestial objects through a solar system. Their hearts and attention appear to be tethered to some complex system of invisible forces beyond my ken. Now here, now somewhere else, the gravitational pull that orders their lives does not often include talk about ideas with others.

From experience, I know they don’t do well when I arrive with a specific skill for them to learn or practice; they tend to tune me (and other kids) out, wandering off in their thoughts, perhaps dutifully doing the task I’ve assigned, but sometimes not. Dutiful or not, under those circumstance the “learning” does not appear to go very deep inside.

I chose Tracker because I knew the boys might groove on the topic. Most of them are hunters and have been going hunting with families for several years. Also, they hadn’t been exposed to Gary Paulsen’s work and I hoped to connect them to the deep themes that Paulsen explores through his books.

I kept my main goals simple: Like the skimmer construction project we are completing in science class, I planned to give the boys some good materials to use and a problem to solve. Translated into “reading class”, that meant they’d need a good book, and I would ask them to think BIG about what Gary Paulsen might be trying to tell them through the book. In other words, we’d explore not just WHAT the book means, but WHY the book exists? Why the heck did Paulsen write this book anyway? What might he have wanted us to think or feel when we read it? I asked them to mark places that “seemed important” and we would talk about those together.

We read. We gathered. We lay in a circle on the carpet. Chairs don’t work for these guys. They like to roll and rock, feet and bodies moving. Their talk sometimes sounds like machine-gun fire — short pronouncements delivered in bursts — rather than the kind of searching exploration that I seek to create.

Yet, in this merry band of comets, one conversation this week set me back on my heels. And it caused me to think about what I know about learning and teaching, and to wonder about what school is, exactly?

*  *  *  *  *

We’d read nearly half the book. We knew of John’s grandfather’s cancer; and two boys brought the recurring stories of death to the carpet.

These boys argued that the theme was death, and they cited as evidence Clay’s cancer, the deaths of John’s father and mother, the neighbor, three deer, particularly a line: “I was close enough to see the life leave it’s eyes.” They could relate to that sight.

Something interesting happened next. I asked: “What about death do you think Paulsen wants us to think about? What do you think he’s thinking about? Why might he have written this book for us to read?”

The response back was: “I’m not really sure.” To which I said: “Then what does it feel like he’s trying to say, even if you can’t put your finger on it exactly? We can work with what your heart tells you.”

Guy1: It seems like something is draining out of John as his grandfather is dying, that he’s trying to keep it together.

Guys: (Others agreed that it seemed that something was changing, but there was some general dissatisfaction with the “draining out” idea, too.)

Teach: You mean like he’s losing energy? Or something else?

Guy2: No, he seems to be gaining energy from the beginning. Like, he’s doing his chores and that seems to help him. But I see what you mean about something draining out. There is something happening.

Teach: What could be draining out…what could this idea of death, or the near death of his grandfather be doing to him that makes you feel like he’s losing something?

Guy3: It seems like maybe that what is draining out is maybe John’s connection with his grandfather. He’s been really important to John…John doesn’t have a father or mother and there’s no one around for him except his grandparents. Now his grandfather is going to die and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s like John and his grandfather are connected, but that connection is draining away. They used to do chores together. They used to hunt together. Now John does all of that stuff by himself.

Guys: [Others chime in with examples of how the relationship has changed, how John doesn’t get to do stuff with his grandfather anymore. There is general agreement that this “death” theme might be not “just” about death, but about John losing some kind of important connection, and when that’s gone things will change for him, something will be broken.]

Teach: (I thought it might be important to explore not just “broken connection” idea, but also the “nothing he can do about it” idea, too.) So, what I hear you saying is that one thing this story might be about is the question: how do you deal with losing connection with important people or things, especially, like many losses, this loss is out of our control…Could that mean anything in our lives, even if we don’t have a grandfather dying…?

And so the conversation went. Worries welled up. Worries about family, worries about divorces, about many, many things that are out of our control. Yet we still have to deal with them, these things that boys don’t talk much about, especially in school. Which eventually brought us back to the book.

Teach: So…maybe Gary Paulsen wrote this book so he could help people like us learn how to live a good life, a meaningful life even when bad things happen, bad things that are out of our control…?

I told you once before that Paulsen ran away from home when he was young ’cause his family life was so bad. Things were so out of his control that he couldn’t take it anymore. How do you live like that? How do you find something good and important in all of that stuff?

Guy3: Maybe he wrote the book to help us figure that out?

Guy2: Maybe he wrote the book to figure out for himself…?

Teach: So, as we read more, maybe we can look for his answer…How do you live when things are out of your control? What do you do? How do you act? What do you hope for? What do you accept?

Which makes me think…Do you remember that odd bit that he wrote about the Japanese poets that his grandfather loved? The ones who wrote haiku? Do you remember that there was a line of Clay’s that struck us: “How did they find beauty in the midst of such ugliness?” Could it be that’s something this book wants to teach us? Maybe there’s some wisdom in the book that’s important for us?

*  *  *  *

So, what to make of this one moment within a larger moment in the lives of some boys who aren’t sure of their place in school? I’m not sure.

I know that this particular book, coupled with these particular boys’ experiences, hit a nerve. I felt it. I could tell that they felt it, too. This description of John Borne’s life — a life of loss in a world out of his control — is also a struggle to find something to hang on to. This description caused them to connect pretty deeply with their own lives, a connection that allowed them to settle their comet-selves down on a carpet under a bank of fluorescent lights contained by four walls long enough to consider the possibility that some made-up character from the mind of someone they don’t even know might have something profound to say to them. Something shifted inside. Permanently? Assuredly not. Shifts show the temporary nature of things, not their permanence. But inertia is inertia and what is in motion has a greater chance to stay in motion…Who knows…?

I also know that it matters that I’m not a computer, and that the kids aren’t reading for AR points. I know them and what they struggle with. Our conversation naturally deflects toward those centers of gravity.

And, so…what’s this school-thing all about anyway? There are no standards that mention the seismology of the soul. There’s no way I could write that goal on the whiteboard: “A student will…what, exactly?” But without the gravitational pull of something meaningful, how do comet-souls find a force strong enough to claim a part of their mass? And without that pull — without the Japanese haiku poets that John Borne’s grandfather reveres, without the Gary Paulsens (or the librarian who gave him some books when he was a fourteen year-old) — how does one find beauty enough, gravity enough to capture a heart?

Finally, I write about this experience not because it is so uncommon, but because every teacher has had these experiences where lives are touched, including our own. We talk about this amongst ourselves. And yet the official version of school isn’t really about this kind of thing. Is it?

Coming Out (of the Corset)

National Portrait Gallery
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Terry Hassan via Compfight

Today’s post takes me away from the classroom stories I have been sharing and straight into the confessional.

Here it comes: I’m in an existential crisis. I love to read. I REALLY don’t like reading class. That makes me just like many of my students.1 Except that I’m responsible for the misery.

I had a crisis over winter break. I didn’t want to come back to school and teach reading in the spring. I wanted to teach science, social studies, math, and writing. Not reading.


Much of the current GREAT THINKING in education says our lessons have to be TIGHTLY FOCUSED around a SINGLE IDEA that is PROMINENTLY POSTED so students can KNOW WHAT THEY ARE LEARNING TO DO.

I’ve found that tight focus feels, well, tight…and confining…like a corset. (Or at least how I imagine a corset must feel?) It squishes me innards, metaphorically speaking.

I’m tired of the lessons whose tight focus on a reading strategy or genre leaves little space for the children to stretch and think for themselves; the five-days-a-week meetings of reading groups at the appropriate guided reading level to gradually release responsibility for my predetermined focus lesson; the “progress monitoring” of children, as if that much measuring of accuracy and rate (which is what it usually distills to) makes a hoot of difference for the big things that matter the most (or that measuring a lot makes a lot of difference, either.) I’m tired of the guilt for never being able to accomplish the above.

To make matters worse, a full two hours of our day is taken up by reading instruction, a 90 minute reading block and a 30 minute “intervention” block, which doesn’t leave much time for the classes the kids actually do like, like science and social studies and (less universally liked) writing, much less for student inquiry. The corset, though fashionable, is killing me and the students.

So, I’m experimenting. I’m stepping over to the Dark Side, further away from the core reading program, further into infidelity. (Infidel. Heretic. Ugh.)

It is not enough just to close the door anymore and hope no one notices. So, I have to be prepared for the eventual blow back. I will share my thinking so that I am prepared.

First (and primarily), I am focusing our learning on questions, rather than statements, because questions elicit thought. The two questions that have served me best are these: What sense can we make of this? And, later: Why might this be important to know or understand? From those, we can generate questions that will draw us deeper into our own inquiry. The inquiry may come from a topic I’ve chosen, or something the children develop themselves. But, if I post anything on a poster, it will be those questions.

Second, we will reflect on the answers to those questions. If I post anything else on posters, it will be how we have (provisionally) answered those questions, the discoveries we have made.

As far as structure, because I know I will get some questions about that. I’ll continue to offer a lot of uninterrupted self-selected reading. The innovation, though, was to create a wall of books we have read, with short, teaser reviews when the kids finish reading them. We are using that wall as a place to show our own reading, with periodic reflection along the way. The kids like reading self-selected books. (Like my brother-in-law, they don’t consider reading actual books to be “reading class.”) They like sharing what they’ve read with others. More of that, please.

I am also bringing more science and social studies into our small group reading time. Sure we are reading words, but we are also reading tables and graphs and maps and figures and videos and Google Earth and physics demonstrations in order to understand something important about a topic we are studying. We will start with the same questions: What sense can we make of this? Why might this be important to know or understand? And these groups will not meet five days a week, either. Two at most, for longer periods of time, sometimes less often.

I won’t let mini-lessons and small group work crowd out our shared read alouds. Period.

I’ll continue to talk to kids individually. If the powers that be want five group meetings for struggling readers, I’ll point toward two longer group meetings and (at least) three conferences per week and (hopefully) we will have a discussion about the relative utility of this path vs. the other.

Mostly, though, I want the kids to think. And I do not want to contribute to their dislike of “reading, the class.”

  1. My all-time favorite story about how universal this problem is came from my brother-in-law, then a fourth grader in Texas. When I asked him whether he liked reading, his answer came in the form of a question: “Do you mean reading the thing you do, or reading the class?” Turns out he hated reading, the class, but read all the time outside class.

Wishes or Fishes? — Some Thoughts on Being Present at the Creation

We finished reading the wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, which I had planned as an introduction to some of the central questions in a unit on immigration.

We came across these pictures early in the book.

I’ve been trying to keep my mouth shut (at least for awhile) so I could hear the kids think. Here’s what they said:

“What are those….birds?”

“No, I think they are flying fish.”

“But they don’t look like fish, exactly. I think they might be a flock of birds that followed the ship.”

“I disagree. I think they are flying fish, too. I’ve heard of flying fish. They fly across ships sometimes.”

So, birds or fish? The class seemed split, but mostly on the side of flying fish.

Later, we came to these pictures.

And these pictures.

And then some kids said:

“I wonder if that isn’t really a bird. Maybe it’s a wish.” (ME: Tell me more, please.)

“Maybe the author wanted to show us a wish and had to think of a way to show it in a picture.”

“Maybe the bird is a wish that The Father sends out to his family. He wishes they could be there with him?”

“It’s like he sends them thoughts through the air to his family.”

And then:

“Remember earlier, on the ship, there were all of those flying fish? Maybe they were ALL wishes by all of those people thinking about the people at home.”

(ME: What do you all think? Wishes? Or something else?)


“Something else!”

(ME: What then?)

“Maybe they are strange animals. The Father has run into a lot of strange animals in the new land he lives in.”

“Yeah! Remember that weird pet that acts like a dog? And all of those people have strange animal pets. I think the author wanted us to think of this as a place with lots of strange animals.”

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I bring up this conversation because it is such a common one in our classroom. I have to admit that I have a bias toward the wishes thesis because it contains visual metaphor, and my brain really likes metaphors. (Yum. And more later, maybe, on why metaphors mean so much to me.)

I know that our classroom is clearly divided between those who increasingly look for language (or a visual image) to carry with it a figurative meaning, and those who see things more literally. Some see wishes. Some see fishes.

I suspect that one of the differences between these stances is how (or whether) one’s orientation as a reader faces toward building a generalization out of a particular–to ask the question that generalizes out of any particular circumstance. For example, the habit of asking this: What might these fishes mean if they weren’t simply fishes? A question like that admits from the outset that there is more than meets the eye, and offers the possibility of general ideas to emerge from the particulars of experience.

Do you have such a divide in your classroom? If so, what do you make of it? Are there any thoughts common to the Literalists, the Figurativians that might help me understand them better?

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Why does metaphor even matter?

Maybe it doesn’t.

Or maybe it does.

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Sometimes, when I listen carefully to the kids talk and I (try) to keep my mouth shut, I feel like I’m present at the creation. Lava oozes from the Earth, cools. Continents wander about slowly colliding, splitting, sloughing, accreting. A new world forms and reforms.


Microcosmos (video) — Noticing the World Around Us

This is a re-blog from my classroom website. I thought it might be interesting for this blog, too, since I’ve been thinking a lot about slowing down to notice important things.

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I saw this movie, Microcosmos (1996) through Netflix and wanted to pass it on to you as something that might be interesting to see with the kids.

Microcosmos explores the close-up world of insects and other small critters that live all around us. The photography is stunningly beautiful. Especially interesting to me was some fantastic footage of a fishing spider bringing air underwater on its abdomen hairs; a very persistent dung beetle; a high-drama contest between two stag beetles; and a very puzzling train of millipedes that follow each other across a mudflat.

The video most definitely gave me the feeling that the world is a very fascinating place, indeed, if only I take the time to notice, to watch, to wait.

Microcosmos might be a great way to introduce kids to a close look at a small patch of yard, or tracks in the snow. The fresh snow we’ve had offers so many ways to observe things that would normally escape our notice. For instance, today I saw the place in the barbed wire fence that the fox uses to enter the prairie for his daily hunting rounds. I saw wing marks where a hawk or an owl tried to catch a vole. And I can see where the chickadees hang out to eat the sunflower seeds from the bird feeder.

It makes me happy to imagine all that life happening around me.

The video is about 1 hr, 15 minutes and contains only about 4 sentences of narration at the end of the video (in French.) Here’s a 2 minute trailer.

What Failure Teaches Me (…more thoughts on reading nonfiction)

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Photo Credit: Katie Walker via Compfight

Of course, I love it when things work out well. I like to celebrate those moments here.

But I also want to use this space to think about things that don’t work out so well. As I tell the children, learning is often messy, unclear, our ideas emerge partly formed and take some effort to make them clearer. From that vantage point, the beauty that might someday be often takes awhile (and some squinting!) to see. So, writing only about the successes doesn’t seem completely honest, since much of what I experience is that messiness of learning. I wrote earlier this year; I pick my way through the jungle.

So here is a failure of sorts that points toward something interesting.

If you’ve read my posts recently, you’ll notice that I’m thinking (obsessed?) about how to help students linger in the ideas of text that do not have a narrative focus. One thought I had was that I might use a practice common to scientific thinking as a way to help students linger with an idea: the creation of a model that could be probed and revised.

Well, it turns out that on some level I must have already been thinking about this problem because I actually had students generate a model as a way to help me understand their thinking about the way sound is produced and energy is transferred via sound waves.

Why didn’t I see this as a rich source to mine for the question I’ve been asking? I don’t know! It took writing on the blog before I saw what was right there in front of me. Sometimes the parts of my brain are like an old couple, living together side by side, thinking their own silent thoughts.

So here’s what we did.

In a learning unit on sound, we conducted experiments and read in small group some short informational pieces about various aspects of sound production and reception. As a culminating activity, I presented the kids with a simple hand-drawn picture and asked the kids to explain how sound got from them to me. In essence, I was asking the children to create a model. As part of their explanation, I asked that they describe in as great a detail as they could how this happens, but that they also identify their uncertainty, too. I told them that the best scientists are most interested in the parts that they don’t know or still have questions about because these are the next areas to explore.

Here are some examples of what the students drew, and how they identified their uncertainties. Here is Student A’s model:


Student A’s model is sort of sketchy and shows that through our discussions and reading I wasn’t able to help her create a very detailed model of how sound travels. However, she does a terrific job of identifying some of the areas where she is uncertain, and offers some tentative explanations: “Maybe the wind carries the sound.”

One of my failures, here, I think was that I didn’t make creating this model the focus of our learning so it could provide a framework from the beginning, If I would have done that, we could more easily track what we learned and what wasn’t learned, and been able to create richer descriptive language. (Richly descriptive mentor texts could have also helped!)

Here’s another example, Student B:



Student B’s model shows some clear details about the various steps in the process — the necessity of some organ in our throats to produce sound, the way the ear receives sound, the presence of “sound waves” — and a clear sense that he didn’t know how sound was produced in the larynx other than that vibrations were produced. Also, the notion of sound waves was mentioned, but not questioned, which I thought was interesting.

Another of my failures illustrated here was that if Student B and Student A could have talked together about their models, if they could have lingered over them a bit more, but in conversation with each other, then both Student B and Student A would have been able to form a better, more complete model and, crucially, a more complete set of questions.

Here’s another model from Student C:


Student C’s model very clearly identifies steps, and some of the parts that must be needed. I was very pleased with how he admitted large areas of uncertainty ( a willingness to admit NOT knowing) including a concern over the structure of waves (“I don’t know how sections become sections.”) Wow.

This model represents still another layer of failure for me. We hadn’t talked about compression waves, but had I known his concern earlier I could have easily found written text (and video!) that shows how vibrations propagate compression waves. This might have brought us into the conceptual swamp of molecules in gases like air (but, heck, why not, eh?) But even if that wasn’t understood by everyone, at least then everyone would have realized that the metaphor of “waves” needed to be further unpacked to make it sensible, even if they couldn’t quite understand how they worked. (This is only fourth grade, right?)

So, what to do?

One way this points me is toward using models as a repository of our current thinking as we read informational text that doesn’t have a narrative focus. If we had a model to talk about, that we might have lingered on, that we could have used it to hone our description, we could have used it to identify and explore areas of uncertainty. We could have used it as a way to talk to each other so we could all develop an increasingly complex conceptual understanding of some pretty complicated ideas. We might have used this model to reinforce a crucial element of scientific inquiry; that is, we could have mapped the unknown territory, the place where scientists love to explore because that’s where the cool stuff lies.