Reflections on NCTE14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the End of First Quarter, a Time to Reflect

grandma

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

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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.

jugaad

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

Starting our Weather Unit with Questions

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

But it’s been difficult.

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

Any one of these was enough to derail me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interesting process, this.

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

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

Gathering Evidence, Making Judgments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disquieting.

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

Prose Poem: Frost

The frost came this weekend, which got me thinking about how things change, sometimes pretty darn quickly. Change has been on my mind lately: my father’s illness and the big changes it has brought to his life; how quickly my nation is marching (once again) to a war in Iraq; our inability to deal with a changing climate with any kind of effectiveness.

So, here’s a prose-poem (of sorts) that ponders how change can happen very quickly sometimes; at the same time it tries to recapture some of my writer-self that took a trip somewhere unknown for awhile. I hope it had a good time out there.

Frost

Have you ever noticed how days can go by and things change so slowly as to be imperceptible? Take summer, for instance. In Iowa, the sun glares at rows of corn for what seems like eons; the locusts lay down a wall of sound from behind the oak leaves. Then suddenly, like last night, the sky clears and the heat that had gathered in the rock wall, and under the leaves of the plums — so tenacious all summer — vanishes silently as an introvert at an office party. By morning, you wake to find Fall has already unpacked its valise, and the garden, filled with squash and cucumbers, wilts, tilting the color wheel from green to brown.

The ancients thought the world was flat, beyond which lay its rim. One minute you’re sailing blithely along, the next you’re over the precipice and in the jaws of a dragon. We modern people are wiser, of course, and know that there is no boundary, no limit, no moment where with a single step we leave one world behind and enter another. From deep within the middle the tomatoes are so ripe and red, the edge so very far away.

— Steve Peterson, 2014

 

What I Learned by Listening First

As readers of this blog know, I sometimes chafe at the gradual release model that emphasizes teacher modeling and a release of responsibility to the children for the task; this is the “I do, We do, They do” model. It’s not that I think the model is wrong or flawed, it’s just that I tend to want to just jump right in to the “We Do” part, and skip the teacher modeling altogether.

There are probably several reasons for my discomfort. I have been influenced a lot by some newer thinking in math instruction (ala Dan Meyer at dy/dan blog) where students start right away working their way through a problem, often even to the point of gathering the information they need to solve the problem. Teacher modeling happens later, if at all. Also, the (now old) 5E model of science instruction immerses the learner right into the event or question to be learned. The exploration is designed to engage the learner in real scientific content. The general scientific principles are sorted out later as a way to explain what just happened. And in the field of reading , Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse’s book What Readers Really Do, and Vicki’s recent blog post (“When is a scaffold not a scaffold?“) have stretched my thinking about how to design learning with children’s thinking at the forefront of my mind.

Probably, also, my aversion to teacher modeling comes from the boy in me that just wants to get to it and cut the talk.

But that champing-at-the-bit also comes mostly from the fact that I learn so very much from the children about what they are thinking when we jump into a task together. Why obscure their thinking with my teacher-model? I lose a valuable source of information.

Such was the two-way learning last week. My goal was to introduce the children to the idea of finding text evidence to support an interpretation. The text was a delightful poem by Joyce Sidman (“In the Almost-Light”) from her fantastic book: Butterfly Eyes and other Secrets of the Meadow. 

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Rather than show the children how to do it, I set them to the task by introducing them to the idea that readers and writers are in a kind of delayed conversation, and the text is the place that conversation starts. Amazing things happen inside our hearts and our heads through the words that appear on the paper (or screen) in front of us. (Strange to think that words from someone we’ve never met might have such a profound impact on us, isn’t it?)

Reading:Writing poster

With that in mind, I asked the children to listen as I read Sidman’s poem aloud to them. (Typed, not copied, so as to focus their attention only on the words. And isn’t that artwork gorgeous?!)

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After the third read they were to try to figure out the answer to the question, and circle words or phrases that helped them figure this out. Basically, they were to justify their thinking.

As I circulated through the room I talked with children about what they were noticing and what they thought the poem might be about. The answers ranged from nuanced to clueless. I was especially interested in why children were stumped. My conversations revealed what I thought might be an initial difficulty seeing the poem as having a time and place, something that I could clearly see, but was much more opaque to the children. There were other problems, but I thought we might be able to take this problem on quickly. Without watching them struggle, I would never have known this.

My next teaching move was to pull the children back for a short discussion about this question: What time is it in the poem? How do you know?

Several had no clue, but many offered either dawn or dusk, using the “Almost-Light” in the title as evidence. Those that thought dusk focused on the first stanza (“In the dark/in the night”) without trying to resolve it with lines like these: “in the leaf-crisp air just before sunlight.” But others did notice those later lines, and pointed out that the poem couldn’t be about dusk because of those other words. In a short time, the class came to consensus that the setting for the poem was dawn based on the fact that there was so much more evidence for it than for dusk. And the students got some good, quick experience drawing (and revising) conclusions while citing text evidence for their thoughts.

Having seen this peer thinking work bring along other classmates, I realized that my next move would be to form quick groups to compare our thinking about the poem. As the triads talked, I again circulated through the room listening and probing their thinking with this question: How do you know?

It was fascinating to hear the groups move from a wide range of options — ranging from butterflies to night to all manner of creatures — toward a consensus (reached independently in disparate groups) that the poem was talking about early morning dew.

The period ended and we had a long Labor Day weekend. On Tuesday we came back to school and one of the first things we did was revisit the poem. I asked the children to declare themselves and to cite some evidence for why they thought what they thought. Here are some of their answers.

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I was pleased with the thinking the children were able to do, especially so early in the year. I was glad that I did not model for the students how to find text evidence, which I think is actually a pretty easy concept for them to grasp, since they are used to using evidence to persuade adults about all manner of things. What I think I discovered through this exercise was that the problem arose because the children were not used to seeing the text as having a unity of purpose (they didn’t see it as communicating a central idea or feeling) so they grabbed bits and pieces of words to form their conclusions. Conversation with peers and time helped them extend the scope of their thinking beyond the first thing they saw or thought.

I would never have learned these things about the children if I had started out talking and showing, rather than listening and asking. Now, with my new knowledge about how they think through text, I can “name” what readers really do and design more learning so they can practice those habits.

Some (quick) Thoughts on Learning and Social Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions at the Center

In science class I decided to jump right into the kind of thinking that is central to science inquiry; in particular, I wanted the children to develop questions based on observation.

Here is a re-blog from my classroom website of our first learning activity, which was designed to help children learn to ask questions. I’m indebted to my virtual colleague, Julieanne Harmatz, whose blog post last year helped me see the power of a question-asking protocol like that developed by The Right Question institute.

These are very fun baby steps.

*  *  * Reblogged *  *  *

Questions
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Oberazzi via Compfight

This week I read a fun short picture biography of Albert Einstein to the children.

Einstein

The book helped me introduce the central place questions have in the study of science and, well, just about everything. (I talked about how scientists are like 2-year olds on steroids: they get to ask “Why?” over and over again.)

I’m afraid that we teachers sometimes ask students to answer way more questions than they get to create. This summer I did some reading about how to help children learn to ask more and better questions to guide their learning. One book I read was this:

More Beautiful Question

Thanks to Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading blog) for helping me find this book.

I used the ideas from that book and some from The Right Question Institute website to design a lesson on how to ask good questions. We’ll practice these as the year goes along. In a nutshell, here is what happened. After we read about Albert Einstein, I gave the students a short list of rules about how to brainstorm questions. Then I gave them a thinking prompt in the form of an observation that I had made after a walk with my dogs around our prairie:

Dragonflies appeared in large numbers near my house yesterday.

Here are the children at work.

We collected the questions. Here is a sampling:

  • Where did the dragonflies come from?
  • How many were there?
  • Is there more than one kind?
  • What are they doing?
  • Are they eating anything?
  • When did the dragonflies come…exactly?
  • Are the dragonflies still there?

Then we talked about how I might be able to answer these questions. Suggestions like these came up:

  • You could sit and watch them for awhile to see what they were doing. Make sure you write down everything they are doing.
  • You could try to catch some and put them in the freezer so you can see what they look like. Maybe you could identify them that way.
  • You could take pictures or videos of them flying so you could see what they were doing.

These were awesome ideas. (In fact, I’m thinking of doing some of these on Sunday afternoon just to see if I can find out some of the answers.) And that is just  the kind of thinking (and activity) scientists get to do for a living.

Finally, here is a cool chart of the “scientific method” (described here) that we will use throughout the school year. I was pleased, though, how well our first attempt to think like a scientist went.

science flowchart

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.