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.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

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?

*  *   *   *   *   *   *

Why does metaphor even matter?

Maybe it doesn’t.

Or maybe it does.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

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.


Waiting for the Arrival, or, How Jumping to Conclusions May be Important to Understanding

The Arrival_cover

We began our exploration of immigration by beginning a “read aloud” of Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel, The Arrival. I told the kids that we were going to be studying the topic of immigration, which is the word social scientists give to the idea that people move from one place to another. That’s about all I told them, so far.

My goal has been to open up some ideas about immigration in a way that the kids could first feel the disorientation and reorientation of the immigrant, before we got into some more of the nitty-gritty aspects of the topic. I’m thinking, here, of how some experiences (war, famine, persecution, hope) pushed people to leave what they knew in the home country to begin a new life in a strange land, the different experiences that people endured along the way, the disorientation of the arrival, the power structure immigrants landed in, and, using whatever resources they possessed, the way immigrants tried to make a new home for themselves in their new land.

Ultimately, I want the kids to begin to understand how this powerful force in history shaped people and places. But I also hope the students might understand the immigrant’s story metaphorically, as the story of any journey into a new land. The immigrants’ disorientation and reorientation applies to many situations.

Maybe, as we read we might see our own lives, our own learning as a kind of immigration from once familiar territory into a new, barely understood land. At the very least, for rural Iowans whose immigrant identity is tenuous to vanishing, we might gain a better sense of our fellow citizens whose experience with home and belonging is so different than our own. Perhaps. Perhaps.

We gathered on the floor, in chairs, and around nearby tables while I projected the book from my iPad onto the screen.

We began to read and talk.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Almost immediately, I ran into several of those moments that Vicki Vinton talked about in a recent post where the students she read to jumped to conclusions that seemed problematic. After the cover page, Tan presented us with this magnificent two-page spread:

The Arrival_faces1 The Arrival_faces2

I asked the children what they made of these. They thought for a moment, and then several children began to form a conclusion.

Me: What do you think about these pages?

Student A: Hmmm. It looks like these are terrorists. (Others agree.)

Me: (Taken aback.) Terrorists? What makes you think that?

Student A: Well, I’ve seen people look like that on the TV when my mom watches her news.

Me: What is it about them that you recognize?

Student B: I agree with (Student A). They look like terrorists because some of them have those hats that they wear on their heads, the ones that twist up…

Me: (To myself: Oh no! This isn’t going where I expected…or want…or anywhere good.) Ok. We think these people might be terrorists. Why do you think the author wanted us to be thinking about terrorists right now in the book?

Student C: Maybe because something is going to happen that’s really bad and the author wanted to plant a clue for us right now?

Me: (To myself: Hmmm….that’s pretty good thinking about how authors use these early opportunities in books.) Ok. Maybe the author wants to warn us about something. Let’s read more to see if we can connect anything to these pictures and to other parts of the book.

(Before I can start to flip the pages again.)

Student D: Maybe they are slaves?

Me: (To myself: Hmm…this is going to be interesting!) Why do you think that?

Student D: They look like they aren’t very happy and some of them look like the pictures I’ve seen of slaves. Besides, there’s a picture of a little kid on the third row down on the left side and I don’t think this kid is a terrorist, but I know that some kids were slaves.

Me: Ok. So now we have two different ideas about what these pictures mean. 1) They are a warning that terrorists might attack. 2) They are pictures of slaves that…what?

Student D: …might be arriving somewhere. That way we can connect to the title, too.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

We read on. The pictures tell the story of a man leaving his family. We notice they are poor, and the woman and man are very sad to be parting.


The man takes a train from the station and then boards a boat. After many days at sea — delightfully rendered by many small drawings of different kinds of clouds — we see this picture.


Suddenly, the ideas about who those people were at the beginning of the book changed!

Student A: I don’t think those were terrorists or slaves anymore. I think they are the people that got on this boat.

Me: Tell me more.

Student A: I think the author wanted us to think about all of these different people getting on a boat to go somewhere. They are sad because they have left their families, like the father was sad when he left his family.

Others: Yes! There are all of these people that had to leave their families and go on a train, maybe, and now a boat and soon they are going to arrive somewhere else.

Me: (To myself: I’m glad that I just let the early stuff go so we could come to this.) So, we discovered something here, didn’t we? We started out thinking th0se people were terrorists, then slaves, and now we think they might be other people, lots of different people who look very different from each other — all of whom are leaving their own homes for somewhere else. You’ve connected this set of images to other things you’ve noticed in the story and you’ve changed your mind as you got more information. That’s really cool, kids, that you can stick with something like that until it starts to make sense, and until you can connect it to lots of other details in the story. Congratulations.

Let’s see where this new idea takes us, okay?

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

It may be that the struggle the children engaged in as they jumped to conclusions helped them to first notice the differences between the immigrants in the two-page spread of faces (the strange faces, the long beards and mustaches, the wrapped heads.) This is a crucial understanding that I hoped they would get, that all immigrants are not alike, and that not all immigrants would even feel comfortable around the other, though they share the same “name”: immigrant.

Perhaps it was necessary for them to live with the idea of difference, even if it brought them to a place that was pretty uncomfortable for me for awhile. (Watch out for the terrorists!) Only after living with that for awhile were they able to understand that while the difference between the people on that page was significant for the story, the terrorist idea didn’t fit and they could eventually discard it.

Similarly, their conclusion jumping — they are slaves! — emerged from noticing the expression on the faces and putting that together with the differences in the faces. This idea of unhappiness or worry, too, might have been necessary for them to notice and to live with for awhile so they can feel deeply the emotions those who leave must feel.

As we read further in the story, the difference between the people, as well as the worry and sadness they had on their faces, might help us better understand what it must be like to be so different, one from the other, and so alone in a new world.

Reflection as a Goal–Our (First) Weekly Video Update Project

Dreaming Lush Green Grass and Spring Sunsets
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: DCSL via Compfight

Today I posted a short-ish video to my classroom blog site, an update of our week together that I talked about in this post that turned into a reflection about some of the struggles I have when I teach reading.

Now I’m going to show you our first video and to reflect on our learning goals for this project. The video is embedded at the end of this post.

The Rationale

I had learned about Tony Sinanis’ video updates from Jericho, NY through George Couros’ blog. I thought this idea might offer me a way to address some fundamental beliefs, beliefs that have been in the back of my mind for some time but that I have not been able to imagine how to bring to light.

First, I believe that we learn better when we are mindful of what we are doing, which applies to me as well as the kids I teach. One way we could become more mindful, I felt, was for us to assume the responsibility for gathering evidence of our learning over a relatively short period of time, and to think about how to present a piece of that evidence to ourselves and to others. It made sense to get students involved in this kind of thinking. Perhaps it might develop in them the habit of thinking (and documenting) their own growth, and it might help me focus our learning as I see how they respond to what we’ve done.

Also, I believe that schools (including me and the classroom that is my responsibility) don’t open our doors quite far enough to parents and the community. I thought that a video might humanize our classroom, it might capture some of the ways that kids think, talk, and act. By doing that, our classroom might feel just a little more comfortable, open, and inviting, even if parents and interested others wouldn’t necessarily be able to come into the classroom to see what we are doing.

The Process

At the beginning of the week I showed the kids some videos that Mr. Sinanis created with the kids in his school. We talked about what the videos did, what they felt like, and what we could tell about the people and the school from the videos. We cited evidence from the videos for our ideas. You might say that we read Mr. Sinanis’ videos closely. How uncommonly Core-y. 🙂

Next, I told the kids that I had identified four academic areas where significant learning would happen during our week together. I made those choices, but, later, perhaps the kids could do some of that brainstorming, too. For the first video, though, I thought it would be easier for me to set those areas for the kids.

After that, we got volunteers to take on one of those areas, to chart what had happened during the week, and to write a short bit about what he or she had done or seen others do. (That writing part didn’t happen as much as I would have liked, but we’ll work on it. I think it might be crucial to my goal of mindfulness.) Each child got to pick a helper for the project, too, someone he or she could talk to about what had happened. This talk and charting, which happened a lot more than the writing, occured during the freer portions of our literacy block time.

Later in the week I gave the kids a sheet with questions designed to generate a story or two  about the week. I’m going to revise that sheet into question stems for next week. The sheet wasn’t as universally useful as I had hoped, but showed some promise.

Finally, on Friday I conducted short thinking conferences with the partnerships so we could discuss what they had noticed and thought. We planned their presentations and practiced talking to each other. Then, at the end of the day, while the other kids were working on creating cards for a Veteran’s Day project, we recorded the video in the hallway.

While the video isn’t a work of art, I think it will be well received by the parents in the classroom.

Have you done anything like this? What has been your experience?

How We Learn: On Noticing and Being Mindful

Here’s a re-blog of a post about learning from our classroom blog.

I’ve been thinking about learning this year. The first post I wrote about learning and the jungle of our classroom, and the second was another re-blog from our classroom website.

— — — —

At the end of the day we came back to our exploration of how we think. We reminded ourselves about how important it is to build our bank of experiences through perseverance, curiosity, reading, trying new things, building stuff, and travel.

Experience is really important! How do we get more of it??

Experience is really important! How do we get more of it??

But experience is not enough to learn well and deeply.

The second crucial step to deep learning is to notice, to pay attention, or to be “mindful” of what we experience. By noticing, or being “mindful” of what we experience, we can bring those experiences into our working memory (which I likened to a work bench.) On the work bench we pile all of the things we might need to make something new. Our experiences are some of the pieces we’ll need to complete the building project. Only the experiences we notice can be placed on the table. The others go directly to the trash.

We learn by noticing, by being mindful.

We learn by noticing, by being mindful.

To illustrate this, we first talked about how there are many things we experience but that we don’t notice; for example, the push of the chair against our bodies, the brush of air against our faces from the ventilation system, the sounds of the lights and the exhaust fans, the beating of our own hearts.

There are also many things that once they are brought to our attention, we find difficult to put out of our minds. For example, try to tell someone they can’t scratch their nose and then scratch yours.

Finally, we realized that there were times that we might have experienced something, even heard it, but it didn’t sink in far enough to help us learn it. This happens often when we are tired, or our mind has begun to wander to other things, or when we are concentrating on something else, like reading or thinking! Minds are hard to control! It takes a lot of effort!

To help illustrate how paying attention (noticing) is both difficult and important for learning, I had the students watch the famous selective attention video about the players passing the basketball. Our job was to count the number of times the team in white shirts passed the ball. If you haven’t seen it, take a minute and a half to watch it.

We played the video again to notice the gorilla and count the ball, which we could do better because we were more familiar with the project, and our attention had been directed toward both the gorilla and the ball passing.

Finally, we talked about how noticing things helps us notice other things. I mentioned that if you would ask a kindergartener to describe a rock, they might not have much to say. All rocks look alike to most kindergarteners. They would probably only know that it was hard, or maybe that some rocks have fossils.

But to a fourth grader who has studied rocks, all rocks do not look the same. Fourth graders know that rocks have a story they can tell if we look closely at them. Some rocks have large crystals, some small. Some are hard, some are soft. Some have different colored minerals in them. Some have evidence of gas bubbles (igneous origin), others have sand and sediment (sedimentary), and still others have smaller crystals or ribbon like bands in them (metamorphic). I told them that from now on, perhaps even for the rest of their lives, they will look at rocks a different way than they had before because they have spent the time to notice, to be mindful, to look like a scientist.

And this reminded us of how Austin, a first grader who drew a butterfly, was able to notice, with the help of his classmates, how a butterfly actually looks in real life, not just in his head. He was able to “look like a scientist.” This video is well-worth the six and a half minutes to watch.

Noticing, being mindful, being alert to the world around us can change our lives!



Learners Gain Experience

Here’s a window inside the 4-P classroom. As I wrote about in an earlier post, we’ve been talking about how people learn.

This is a re-blog from my classroom blog.

Jamba on the windshield
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Martin LaBar via Compfight

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been offering the children a look inside their learning brains. No, we haven’t actually lifted up anyone’s scalp to peer inside, but we have explored some of the things I learned about learning while reading Dan Willingham’s wonderful book, Why don’t students like school?

I promised them a look at how people learn so they could be more conscious of the kinds of habits that good learners possess.

First, we started off with this poster that I created (based on Willingham’s book.)

How do we get all that new stuff inside our head?

Our big question was this: How do I get all that new stuff out there, all the way inside my head so I can learn it well?

It turns out that curiosity didn’t kill the cat after all, but it does make us good learners. To even begin learning something we have to somehow experience it. The more we experience, the more chance we have to learn.

Experience is really important! How do we get more of it??

Experience is really important! How do we get more of it??

As the days went by we talked about how we could make sure we had more experiences so our “bank” of experiences was bigger. We generated a list of things we could do, or ways we could be, that would help us gather good experiences from which to learn:

  • Develop “stick-to-it-tiveness” (persistence / perseverance.) If we stick with something, even though it is hard we might learn new things. Quitting something too early cuts off our experience, and only opens us up to experiences that are easy for us, which usually means we already know a lot about them in the first place. New stuff just is hard. There’s no way around it!
  • Read a lot. We realized that readers can “experience” more of the world than non-readers because they are able to multiply their experiences by all the experiences they have through the books they read. They can learn about things they have never seen, or about things they have never experienced in real life.
  • Travel. We can go new places with a mind that is open to the new-ness of that place. This could be going to some place as far away as China, or as close-by as the creek or Niagra Cave.
  • Try new things. We can search out new things to try. Maybe there is a sport, or a book, or a game, a place, or a person that we would like to get to know better. By searching these out, we can grow our own brains, and become good learners.
  • Build things. We can build things to help us learn how things work. Children talked about Lego-League, or building bridges, or “building” imaginative places around the house or at recess. These are all ways to explore how things work together to make something whole.
  • Develop curiosity. A lot of this comes down to developing a curious and attentive mind. Curious people are good learners.

In the next few weeks, we’ll be talking more about the habits and characteristics we can develop to help ourselves become the best learners we can be. This is a nice start!

About Jungles and Maps and How we Learn

Railroad weeds
Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley via Compfight

After a slow, hot start our year is picking up some momentum (if not speed). If you were to observe a year in our classroom you would notice that it is not much like a train ride, all clearly marked, well tracked, and powerfully focused. No locomotive of learning surges ever forward following the straight track of knowledge.

Rather, our classroom might have a jungle-like quality, much like what I imagined while listening to an audiobook this summer called The lost city of Z: A tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon. Z is a fascinating tale of late 19th/early 20th century explorers, in particular one named Percy Fawcett, who literally hacked their way through the jungle, tripping over roots, re-routing ’round rivers, and dealing with all the sundry obstacles that stood in their way (there’s some fascinating description of the numerous insects that find human blood delicious, for instance!)

Another day in the jungle
Photo Credit: Thomas Frost Jensen via Compfight

Our learning year is probably more like that jungle! Tangled and slow.

So, knowing that about myself as a teacher — my preference for immersion over toe-testing; of wholeness over  the”part-ness” of things, of the tangle over the path — I figured I needed to provide the students with some simple models to ground the work we would do throughout the year.

One model I thought might help was a model of how our brain learns new things. I figured that if they knew that, if they knew the big picture of learning, then it might be easier to understand their current position in the jungle. Sort of the way a map provides context and direction.

Which brings me to another book I read this summer, Dan Willingham’s Why don’t students like school? I’m a fan of books that describe how the brain works: How we decide and Thinking, fast and slow are two that made an impression on me. Dan Willingham’s book helped me see how learning happens because it happens to be about learning.

So, this summer, I created a simplified version of Willingham’s model for the students. I suppose it is also for me, to serve as a reminder of what I shouldn’t forget. My plan is to hang it on the wall, refer to it often, and see if it helps the kids learn how to learn.

Here’s how I introduced it:

Learning is a complicated process that happens inside our brains. What’s too bad about learning is that it’s kind of hard to do well. It can sometimes take a lot of effort. What’s cool about learning is that you get to create your own smartness. Also, learning can be really fun. That means if you want to learn a lot, you can! And by learning a lot, it makes it easier to learn more stuff. Learning is kind of cool, that way.

I’m going to help you figure out how the brain learns things so you can control your own learning better.

So here’s the question, kids: There’s a lot out there that happens in this big old world of ours. Interesting stuff. Important stuff. Hard stuff. Easy stuff. How do we learn about it? How do we put that new stuff in our memory so we’ll remember it for a good long time? How do we change our own brain so it can keep getting smarter and smarter?

Then I showed them a diagram of the question and promised we’d fill in the blanks eventually. But, it might take awhile. We’ll linger on the steps so they really sink in.

The big question: How do we learn?

The big question: How do we learn?

We talked a bit about that problem: How do we get something that’s completely outside yourself far enough inside yourself so that it becomes a part of you, so you really, really know it? We explored how they learned things in the past to the level of being pretty expert at the activity: throwing and catching a ball; talking; walking, then running; math facts; riding a bike…lots of things.

At the root of all of those learning experiences was exactly that: experience! A learner has to experience something in order to learn it, which brought up the second poster.

It all starts with experience!

It all starts with experience!

So, it all starts with experience. If we don’t experience something, we can’t learn it. Even though there’s more to learning than just experiencing something, without experience there can be no learning.

What does this mean for us as learners? What are the implications? We explored this for awhile.

We need to cast our net widely to gather up as much experience as we can. There are lots of ways to do that. We gave examples from our own lives about how we helped ourselves experience more things: we went interesting places; we asked questions when we didn’t understand; we tried things we didn’t know how to do; we sought to gain courage from others and from inside ourselves to do those things that are difficult.

We talked about attitudes that help us to experience more things. For instance, being curious about all sorts of things allows us to explore and experience more. Being open to failure and what it might teach us might keep us from too quickly saying — “I’m not good at that, that’s why I don’t do it.” — an attitude that closes us off from experiences that might be difficult but important. Reading a lot, or watching the news, opens us up to experiences that we don’t have directly.

As an example, I asked who knew about Diana Nyad, the swimmer who swam from Cuba to the US? Two kids had heard of her and could fairly accurately explain to the others what she had done. I asked the children if they had been there, actually experiencing Nyad’s swim. They laughed and said, of course not! But they had heard about her swim on the news and were curious enough about it that they watched and listened and learned.

I told them about how I learned things from books and the news all the time. I learned important things about the world around me; about life and how to live it well. I told them that people who read a lot make themselves smarter because they are able to add many, many things to their bank of experiences, things they never would have been able to experience in any other way.

I know we’ll explore those issues as we continue to explore why people read.

So, we’re part-way into our exploration about how people learn. We have a couple more steps to go, but already I’m seeing that this exploration might be able to ground our discussion about how learning is helped by growth-oriented attitudes toward learning, attitudes like curiosity and wonder, perseverance, accuracy and exactness, the ability to listen, and to regulate oneself. I’ll introduce these in the next few weeks and we will explore these habits as the year goes along.

Machetes ready? Into the jungle we go.

Habits for STrong Learners_poster