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.

A Collection of Astounding Facts

SHYANGLE dalioPhoto via Compfight

So much on my mind these days. The events that have occurred ” inside the dog” of the classroom seem to break into fragments as soon as I place them within the frame of a story1 as if the frame does not hold the story together, but presses it apart into shards that glint and flicker like the flames caused shadows to dance across the wall of Plato’s cave. I suppose that I am that man chained to the floor, the one who cannot tell what is a shadow and what is a puppet.

I think that’s why I have not had a story to tell lately2, but I do have a need to connect things together even if I am suspicious of stories right now.3 So, if not a story, here are some things collected and arranged in close proximity to each other.

Here’s one piece: Mary Lee Hahn’s lovely Poetry Friday post about noticing the small things, the important things (as well as about Mark Strand’s poetry and something as small as the Universe.)

I don’t know that,
but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of,
or that floats around in space.

But we’re combined in such a way
that we can describe
what it’s like to be alive,
to be witnesses.
Most of our experience is that of being a witness.
We see and hear and smell other things.

(Line breaks are Mary Lee’s)

Another fragment tumbled through the ether: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Most Astounding Fact, that not only are we part of the universe, but the universe is part of us: “Our desire is to be connected, isn’t it…?”

And, while splitting wood last weekend, a third bit arrived on the east wind of an overcast day during a break to rest my back: a visceral sense that locked deep within the rings of wood created on one sunny day over 100 years ago was the breath of people and critters who once lived in the place that I inhabit now, a carbon journey that moved in time from these breaths to carbon chains created through a clever bit of chemistry and the Sun’s own energy deep inside the organs of living beings so different than me (plants!), and all this, in turn, from bits of carbon created in the cores of stars many times more massive than our Sun, so ancient as to be unimaginable. Carbon loaned to me in the form of a body today will be somewhere else tomorrow.

Connected, indeed.

Somehow it seems really important that I ponder these things.

  1. For example, our Science engineering unit nearing completion is BOTH a successful attempt to provide space for analytical thinking AND a dismal failure to manage a couple groups who have children with prickly personalities…as well as a few more things I don’t even realize.
  2. Or, rather, I have too many stories to tell about the same event, which may be the same thing.
  3. My suspicion comes and goes.

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.

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

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.

On Openness — Some Stories from the Atacama Desert

I’ve been enjoying education writer Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Report, a weekly dose of learning theory and research that arrives in my inbox. In the last few months she has written two posts (here and here) on travel. One post made the case that travel can help generate a sense of humility, an outlook that recognizes that there are many, many ways of doing things in this big ol’ world:

Exposure to other cultures (whether through travel or through encounters in everyday life) is one way we can keep ourselves cognitively humble; such experiences invariably remind us that our own perspective on the world is limited, and only one among many.

Travel helps us “to consider alternative scenarios or outcomes. Often we are so sure that things will work out the way we expect that we fail to account for other possibilities.”

I’m just now back from a two week trip to Chile with my partner, Beth, (an ecologist) and a friend, Anita, who is a Chilean anthropologist. We spent some time scoping out a location for a college class the two of them are going to teach about mining, tourism, people, and the environment in the Atacama desert of northern Chile.

For me, though, this trip to Chile (a place I had never been before) was a perfect opportunity to adopt a stance of openness, to see not just what lies on the surface, but to try, as best I could, to seek out what lies buried underneath. Or, as Annie Murphy Paul noted: “When in Rome…Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do.”

Valparaiso — One Kind of Beauty

One side trip took us to Valparaiso, a seaport city near Santiago that is filled with public art. My eyes feasted on the color. You don’t find this kind of exuberance very often in the staid Midwest, leaving me to wonder what kind of artistic ethos must pervade Valparaiso to account for this?

Buildings and doorways were painted with some of my favorite colors, and in combinations that were very exciting to my eyes!

And around each corner, vibrant public art was spray painted on the sides of houses, businesses, even on the many retaining walls that seem to prop up the hills.

But the majority of the time was spent in northern Chile getting to know the desert and its people.

Beneath the Surface of the Atacama Desert — Another Kind of Beauty

The Atacama is a fragile environment. Some parts have not seen rain in several hundred years. As tenacious as life is, even soil bacteria cannot grow in some places for lack of water.


Atacama Desert. Photo: Steve Peterson

Over the centuries, sand has blown off the level spots of the desert leaving a hard pan of rock and pebbles. The sand, like snow, is carried by the winds to form drifts around any surface irregularity it encounters such as these uplifted sedimentary hills in the Valle de la Luna.

Valle de la Luna.

Valle de la Luna at sunset. Photo: Steve Peterson

Valle de la Luna

Valle de la Luna, the white is salt from groundwater evaporation. Photo: Steve Peterson

More rain falls in the highlands, which brings grasses, and the vicuña that graze on the grasses. The grasses shone brilliant yellow against the crystal-blue sky. Behind, volcanoes loom.

Grasses near a laguna in the altiplano. Photo: Steve Peterson

Grasses near a laguna in the altiplano. Photo: Steve Peterson

The desert is filled with salt flats several thousand meters thick that are formed by ancient water from prior glacial events that slowly oozes up through mineral bearing rock back to the surface. With no outlet, the flats dry like an immense evaporation dish, creating a crucial habitat for three species of flamingos that eat shrimp from the briny waters and for many other birds, too. Some of the sandpipers that I see in Iowa winter in the Salar de Atacama. (We are more closely connected than I realized, this place and me.)

Flamingos in the Salar de Atacama. Photo: Steve Peterson

Flamingos in the Salar de Atacama. Photo: Steve Peterson

Life is tenuous in the desert. Flamingos compete for water with the lithium mines. It turns out that the Salar de Atacama contains more than 25% of the world’s lithium supply. Large quantities of lithium rich ground water is pumped to the surface and evaporated in large pools that you can see in the center of this Google Earth screen capture. (For some reason, Google Earth thinks this is the Salar del Carmen.) The batteries for my computer probably contain lithium mined in the Atacama. The flamingos live in small salt ponds north of the mines. The water the mines take from the ground isn’t being replenished.

Lithium mine evaporation ponds as seen from Google Earth.

Lithium mine evaporation ponds as seen from Google Earth.

And desert life is hard for people, too. Growers in the small town of Tocanao grew fruit on the fertile floodplain in a small slot canyon along a sweet water river that came from the mountains. Until, that is, a freak rain in the mountains four years ago created floods that swept away not just the fruit trees, but also all of the topsoil, leaving bare rock behind. Desert life is life on the edge. And living on the edge gets even more difficult with extreme weather caused by climate change.

A few years ago fruit trees grew along the river. Photo: Steve Peterson

A few years ago fruit trees grew along the river. Photo: Steve Peterson

People become ingenious in order to survive. They settle in small towns along small streams and use terracing techniques to capture and hold water. It is amazing to think of the accumulated knowledge these growers have about seeds, watering cycles, and farming in nutrient poor soils, not to mention the political skill it takes to manage systems like this in such an extreme environment and under such scarcity.

Terracing in Toconce. Each family group gets a certain section of the terrace to work. Irrigation flooding happens on a set schedule worked out cooperatively. Photo: Steve Peterson

Terracing in Toconce. Each family group gets a certain section of the terrace to work. Irrigation flooding happens on a set schedule and is worked out cooperatively. Photo: Steve Peterson

A house with windows made of tires. The glass appeared to be a washing machine door. Bars are sticks embedded in adobe. Beautiful and practical! Photo: Steve Peterson

A house with window frames made of tires. The glass appeared to be a washing machine door. Bars are sticks embedded in adobe. Beautiful and practical! Photo: Steve Peterson

But this way of life is also changing. Minerals, especially copper, have been mined in the geologically active mountains throughout the Atacama region for many years. The Chuquicamata mine is one of the biggest open pit mines in the world. All it takes is a quick look out the airplane window to see how dominated the landscape is by mining and the insatiable need our world has for more and more.

The Chuquicamata copper mine as seen on Google Earth. 5Km long, 3Km wide, and 1Km deep.

The Chuquicamata copper mine as seen on Google Earth. 5Km long, 3Km wide, and 1Km deep.

All that mining uses a lot of water, which is in short supply in the desert. The mining caused the water in some towns to dry up, which caused the food supply to be tight, which caused some of the Atacameños who lived in those towns to move to the city of Calama, a dingy mining town on the Loa River.

And it was in Calama, that I saw some more inspiring sites and, through Anita, met some very interesting people indeed.

Making Likantatay — Still Another Kind of Beauty

Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos of Likantatay. I’ll have to describe it with words.

Likantatay is Lila’s home turf. Lila is an Atacameña from one of the villages who now lives in Calama and works at a local school. Anita met Lila when she did some of her anthropological research in the desert communities.

We drove to the outskirts of Calama to meet Lila early one morning. She had agreed to show us her home community of Caspana, a two hour drive northeast from Calama, and to introduce us to some of the people there. The sun was just coming up as we left the paved roads of Calama and entered a section of town that contained rutted, dirt streets. Fences made of wooden pallets and rusted corrugated metal siding lined both sides of the road. Gaps in the fences revealed patches of desert with what appeared to my eyes to be random piles of debris — rock, concrete from road destruction, wire, and metal. It looked like a dumping ground for city residents. I thought we were lost.

Our meeting place turned out to be an intersection of two dirt streets. We parked near a low cinder block structure. An old man rode slowly past on a squeaky bicycle in the chill desert air.

After some time, Lila appeared and lead us through a metal door and into the courtyard of her family’s compound.

Finally, I began to see beneath the surface. As we talked (with Anita translating) I began to realize that what had at first appeared to be a garbage dump was actually a long-standing community that represented the hope and dreams of many people.

The settlement of Likantatay was started by Lila’s mother and other Atacameños as a squatter community just outside the Calama city limits. After they moved from the villages (Toconce, Rio Grande, Caspana, Chui Chui, among others) the transplanted villagers felt a desire to keep some of the former ways of life in their new life in the city. They settled in communal groups, built homes from scavenged materials (the piles that I first saw as junk were actually raw materials for construction), and they developed fields to grow produce and grains (the patches of desert that I saw through the fences were actually fields that had no crops because it was winter in the Southern hemisphere.)

For several years, the Likantatay residents “stole” water from the sewage pipe that left Calama. They would open up the pipe at night when no one could see in order to water their fields. They raised corn and carrots and squash and potatoes, as well as livestock. (Lila’s family had several goats, sheep, pigs, llamas, and chickens in pens behind their compound.) They relied on their centuries old skills to share the water equitably among farmers.

Later, after much strife (including some sit-ins at government offices) the residents of Likantatay gained some legitimacy. And along with that legitimacy came services like electricity, sewer, and water (a canal was dug mostly by hand by Atacemeños, but through land that the city needed to free up.) Likantatay had become a part of the city.

It was also an important place for the Atacemeño diaspora to gather to support each other. The day we visited Lila’s home was already busy with food preparation. A large party was scheduled for later that day. One of the Atacameñas, now living in Santiago, had developed cancer. In response, the community had her travel back to Likantatay for a Mass for healing to take place around a homemade altar. They put on a feast to raise money for treatments. It matters to have a place to carry on these traditions. It matters that people wrested a home from the government and from the desert. Sometimes people need to come home.

So, my experience in Likantatay really did help me gain another level of humility, to realize that there were stories behind the fences and the piles of concrete and metal, that beauty takes many forms. The experience in the desert helped me see that stories of survival, tragedy, and triumph are layered around us like drifts of sand sifted and dropped by the winds that blow through our lives.

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After a long day in the villages in the foothills of the Andes, we returned to Likantatay. The large communal kitchen in the compound was filled with women and girls cleaning up after the party. Jaime, a girl of about ten, asked if Beth, Anita, and I would go to the back and watch her show off some soccer moves she had been practicing. One thing lead to another and she challenged Beth and me to a soccer match, which got videotaped as it became increasingly hilarious. Somewhere making the rounds of Likantatay is a short video of Jaime kicking my butt, passing the ball to herself between my slow feet, juking, feinting, and making this old gringo jerk around like a marionette on a string. And that’s just one more small story to drift on top of the others.

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.

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.