Read-aloud is Our Best Learning

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

sequence1 sequence2 sequence3 sequence4



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

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

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

Five Whys to Deepen Thinking

Utwo Boss elevage le courtal via Compfight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Spaces for Conversation and Intellectual Play

BalancedCreative Commons License Earl McGehee via Compfight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Questioning the Stories We Tell Ourselves — Misconceptions in Science Class


misconception definition

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Given our model, we made some predictions:

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

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

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

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

Within minutes I heard exclamations like these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Playing with My Mind: Opening a Space for Intellectual Play

 “A photograph is not created by a photographer…”
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Sam Antonio Photography via Compfight

Off and on this year, we’ve been thinking about figurative language, in particular metaphor. Metaphor is often at the heart of themes in fiction, as this discussion we had about The One and Only Ivan revealed. I’ve written about our struggle with a particular image in the wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, as well.

I’m aware that some children in the class are very adept at seeing metaphor and are beginning to think metaphorically, which is an exciting development. But I’m also aware that some children have a more difficult time with metaphor, with understanding how to begin to unpack a metaphor.

I often struggle with talking about metaphors with the kids. I don’t want the discussion to come across too “academic.” Like explaining a joke to someone, explaining a metaphor can be pretty one-sided with the end result being a mumbled, “Oh” from the one who didn’t see the metaphor and probably still doesn’t really feel it.

Last week I decided to present to the kids Valerie Worth’s poem, “Fence”, from her book all the small poems and fourteen more.

from Valerie Worth, all the small poems and fourteen more

from Valerie Worth, all the small poems and fourteen more

For our Poetry Friday celebration, I copy a poem and place it at each child’s table space before she arrives in the room in the morning. The kids know to read the poem, talk about it with others, annotate it, and then bring the poem to the carpet area for our morning meeting, which starts after our morning chores are done.

This time, to help the kids who might have a more difficult time seeing that a concrete image like a fence might also contain a metaphor, I asked them to consider this question: If the fence in this poem were not just a fence but a metaphor for something else, then what might that be? Simple enough.

I was pleasantly surprised with how this simple question opened up the thinking of some of the kids. I found that students who were usually quiet during our discussions had something more to say. Here were some of the ideas. Other ideas got built on top of the ones presented at first. I’ve tried to represent some of that building upon in the way I wrote the comments by grouping them sequentially.

“Maybe the fence was like a cage that kept the cows in. Now they are free.”
“It’s kind of like Ivan. He was in a cage but he broke out of it to freedom.”
“It’s also kind of like some of the ‘stories within a story’ we saw in The Arrival, (the ones that are told to the father as he meets people in the new world.) It’s like the immigrants we are studying. They had to break out of their old life, too.”

“Maybe the fence stands for all of the things that hold you back.”
Me: Like what?
“Like other people who might not want you to be a certain way.”
“Or maybe like even you can hold yourself back by telling yourself you can’t do something.”

And that’s about all we could explore right then.

After I had time to process what the children had said, I wanted to ask them more. For instance, what did they think of these first lines?

The old fence
has fallen down,
A pile of gray
Rails resting
in the grass

Their interpretation of the poem was one that emphasized freedom. I suspect they had identified with the cows; I certainly did, too. Yet, these lines gave me a sense of age, a sense of melancholy. Maybe at least part of me was also identifying with that “pile of gray/Rails resting/in the grass”, which was something that might have been very difficult for them to feel. If I had the chance to do this over, I would ask them what these lines made them feel. Ah well.

This experience caused me to think about a couple things related to the question that I asked them. First, asking the question in an if/then format offered the kids a mental challenge to put pieces together and stretch their thinking. Some readers do that kind of thinking all the time, but for readers who haven’t started thinking metaphorically, who enter the concrete and stay there, this question offered them an entry into the process. Second, I think the if/then question might have created a space for intellectual “play,” for batting around ideas for the simple joy of playing with them. Maybe by opening up that space, children could enter it more easily.

Finally, I suspect that it is precisely this joy of intellectual (and emotional) play that keeps me coming back to reading poems like “Fence.” I suspect, too, that this play is at the heart of my desire to explore the apparent difference in readings (hopeful or slightly melancholy) that never really surfaced in our discussion that day, but lingered in my heart after our talk was over. Could it be that they experienced a bit of this joy, too?  Can we come to appreciate and value intellectual play? As an end itself?

My 101st Post: a (re)Birthday of Sorts


steve peterson

steve peterson

I just realized that the last post was my 100th since I started this blog in October 2012. This is a good time to reflect. Interestingly, that post deals with some of the same subject matter as the first post — the insanity of posting predetermined “learning goals” for all of our day — a post that I never published because I was nervous about what others might think.

The symmetry seems significant. First, the fact that I’m still struggling with this issue now for at least two years shows either how intractable the problem is, how unable I am to effectively deal with it, or…something else that I haven’t imagined. Yet, the fact is, this blog has allowed me to identify and explore the ideas that seem most important to me, to my life “inside the dog” where it is sometimes too dark to read the story of our shared life of learning. I had hoped to use this blog to flick on a reading lamp. And, while sometimes the chandelier inside contains a rather dim bulb :), the light sure has helped me see better.

Second, the fact that I can talk about these concerns now while earlier I was silent means that I have begun to find a voice, my voice. I do not pretend to have all of the answers, or even to know all of the questions, but this blog has helped me become a better, more articulate thinker. Writing just does that for me. It helps me think by giving me words. As a result, not only can I say what I think, I can also know what I think. Writing is magical. It calls forth ideas like a silkworm spins silk.

Finally, this blog has put me in contact with other thinkers whose ideas (and spirit) have meant so very much to me. I’m thinking especially of

  • Vicki Vinton (To Make a Prairie), whose weekly posts always range far beyond the subject of reading and into the joys of real learning. Much of what I have been thinking about here has benefited from conversation with Vicki and her marvelous band of readers, from Vicki’s insightful thinking about learning and what readers really do, and, well, from the generous spirit that glows in the words of her blog;
  • the dynamic duo of Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (Burkins & Yaris) whose explorations of the Common Core model for me what true inquiry looks, sounds, and feels like, and whose prose takes on the feel of poetry, whose partnership in blogging helps me see what collaboration at its best can become;
  • Mary Lee Hahn and Franki Sibberson (A Year of Reading), another dynamic duo whose blog has informed and enlightened me for longer than any other (though I just started commenting on it about a year ago.) I love their consistent, insistent sharing of their ongoing learning and their creative souls. Here’s to you, Mary Lee, for your poems and your mosaics and your student-made videos and…And to you, Franki, for your inquiry and your technology and for sharing your classroom journey. And to both of you for some powerfully wonderful book reviews!;
  • Julieanne Harmatz (To Read, To Write, To Be), a new friend-across-a-distance whose writing about her classroom contains such clarity and grace, whose stories of classroom celebration are poignant and always generous of spirit, whose descriptions contain the kernel of what learning can be, even within the confines of a school-day classroom;
  • Fran McVeigh (Resource – Full) another new friend, a fellow Iowan who I’ve never met in person but whose comments on others’ blog posts are impressive and thoughtful, for her immense base of knowledge and passion for learning and teaching, for her unflagging willingness to share all that she knows with others.

There are so many others whose work has inspired me, though they do not really know it; folks like Kevin Hodgson, Paul Solarz, Michael Doyle, Christopher Danielson, Bill Ferriter, and many more.

So, to the first 100, it’s a wrap. I will see what the next year brings. Cheers.