Friday, March 28, 2014


Students throughout elementary school need to learn and understand how to sort and classify. In order to learn about spelling patterns, students sort words during word study (as suggested in texts like Words Their Way). In Physical Science, students as young as kindergarten are asked to sort objects in terms of color, size, shape, and texture. In English Language Arts, students must sort texts into literature and nonfiction and then further classify the texts into specific genres.

Classifying and communicating their methods of classification is something that students continually need to practice and refine. The Visible Thinking Routine “Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate: Concept Maps” serves as a great tool for “uncovering and organizing prior knowledge to identify connections,” (p. 51 of Making Thinking Visible, by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison, 2011). Using this Thinking Routine, students are able to organize and see their thinking as they classify.

In first grade, students study how observing the environment leads to discoveries. They inquire into making observations, classifying, and drawing conclusions. In order to learn these abstract concepts, first graders work with rocks and other earth materials. Working with rocks fulfills Minnesota State Standards in Earth and Space Science (,, but it also allows first graders to work with concrete examples so that they can develop conceptual understandings of observation, classification, and drawing conclusions.

To give her students an opportunity to construct a understanding of these abstract concepts, one first grade teacher decided to use the Visible Thinking Routine “Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate” with her students. First, students generated descriptive words they would use to describe their rocks. Students had previously completed a learning engagement on observations and descriptions where they learned the value of a complete description, so had some background knowledge on this process.



Then, students came together to sort all their groups’ work onto a large concept map. The teacher recorded words on the SMARTboard, placing checkmarks beside words that students had already contributed. As students shared their words with the group, they told the teacher how they wanted their words sorted on the class’s concept map.

After the words were sorted into categories 
that the students had created (color-coded by blue, orange, purple, and pink), she prompted the students to label the categories. Students were able to label three of the four categories they had created: color, size, and texture. One word - shiny - didn’t fit with any other group and the students were unsure what to label that group. The teacher helped the students understand that the descriptor shiny describes a rock’s luster, and she added it to the concept map. Crystals also ended up fitting under the category luster.

Once students had created their own categories for describing rocks and some example descriptors for each category, they were to describe their own individual rocks, 
elaborating on the categories they helped create (students used a recording sheet found on p. 166 of More Picture Perfect Science Lessons, which builds off the children's book If I Found a Rock by Peggy Christian).



By working through the Thinking Routine "Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate" students were able to construct their own understanding of writing descriptions and classifying. Although working through this Visible Thinking Routine undoubtedly took more time, students not only learned factual knowledge and conceptual understandings, but they were able to hone their thinking skills. With so much to learn about our world, teachers have little hope of teaching it all. However, when educators give students the opportunity to learn how to think, they needn't worry about not having time to teach everything. If teachers give students the gift of being able to think, students will eventually be able to independently acquire knowledge, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, think about different points of view (dialectical thought), and think about their thinking (metacognition).

After reading about how first graders used the Visible Thinking Routine "Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate" to construct conceptual understanding, how could you use or have you used "Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate" in your instructional practice?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

I Used to Think ... , Now I Think ...

Making students' thinking visible is important for both teaching and learning. When teachers are able to see what students are thinking about the concepts with which they are working, teachers are better able to understand how they might support their students growth in understanding. Furthermore, making students' thinking visible is advantageous for the students. When they are able to see how their own thinking is growing, shifting, and changing, they're able to better understand their thinking processes, which benefits them in future learning.

In their book, Making Thinking Visible (2011), Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison have included seven Visual Thinking Routines for synthesizing and organizing ideas. "I Used to Think ... , Now I think ..." is a routine that teachers can use to provide students an opportunity to reflect and think about their own thinking (metacognition). It is used "to help learners reflect on how their thinking has shifted and changed over time," (p. 51). Furthermore, it allows teachers to see how students are understanding particular concepts before and after a period of learning, which is important formative assessment data that teachers can utilize as they develop future learning engagements for their students.

Recently, I found myself in a kindergarten classroom with 34 learners. Their classroom teachers were leading the children through an inquiry into how weather influences living things all over the world. During the unit of inquiry, the students inquire into how weather can be observed, recorded, and predicted; how severe weather affects humans' lives; and how seasons can influence living things. As the students learn about these concepts, teachers plan learning opportunities during which their students can engage with the big ideas of change, responsibility, cycles, and pattern.

Understanding this was the direction the teachers were going during this unit of inquiry, I planned a lesson with the students around the concept of "cycles". By working with the seasons at the factual level, I wanted the students to understand that cycles are patterns in the shape of a circle that repeat over and over. Because kindergartners wouldn't be able to articulate that understanding verbally, I was looking to see if they could show me their understanding of cycles by drawing a flow map in the shape of a circle.

Because I not only wanted to check the students' understanding at the end of the lesson, but I wanted to know what they understood about seasons before the lesson began, I decided that the Visible Thinking Routine, "I Used to Think ..., Now I Think" would be a perfect way for the kindergarteners to demonstrate their understanding before and after the lesson.

I began with introducing how a flow map is a tool that allows us to show the order or sequence of something.  I gave students time to show their understanding of seasons using a flow map under the heading, "I used to think". Then, after learning that the seasons go in a cycle (using pictures of a biCYCLE, a motorCYCLE, and the reCYCLE symbol, along with singing the song, "ROUND and ROUND the Seasons Go) students had to show me their new understanding of how the seasons go in a cycle under the heading "Now". Below are some student work examples of how their thinking changed and shifted within the hour lesson.

Student A: This student shows how she understands the seasons run. Notice the linear flow-map, along with the incorrect order of the seasons (spring-fall-winter-summer).

Student A: After the lesson, not only does the student demonstrate her knowledge of the order of the seasons, but she understands the concept that the seasons run in a cycle, not linearly.
Student B: This kindergartner is obviously advanced in his literacy skills. However, he still demonstrates an incorrect understanding of how seasons work.

Student B: After the lesson, the student demonstrates the correct understanding of the cyclical nature of the seasons, along with adjective descriptors of each of the seasons.

Student C: This student demonstrates a correct understanding of the cycle concept before the lesson. Notice how he also labels his graphic organizer "flow map".

Student C: Because the student already demonstrated a correct understanding of how the seasons run in a cycle, he didn't feel the need to draw the cycle again. Instead, he challenged himself (completely independent from teacher direction) and demonstrated his understanding with words - "the sezins (seasons) go in a caieikl (cycle)".

Student D: This kindergartener demonstrates a lack of understanding of print. He was able to copy from the board words and phrases like "flow map", I used to think", "wntr" and "sprg" however they're not in any sort of order and it is hard to understand what his thinking is with regards to the concept of cycles.

Student D: Although this student wasn't able to adequately demonstrate understanding before the lesson, this "Now I Think" demonstration clearly shows he gained not only an understanding of the abstract concept of cycles, but he also is beginning to accurately use print to communicate meaning: W (winter); CC (spring); (su) summer; [backwards] F (fall). Complete with a jack-o-lantern!

Student E: It is unclear what the student understands about seasons or cycles in this "I used to think".

Student E: This student continues to demonstrate a lack of understanding of seasons, cycles, or this particular Visible Thinking Routine.
Although Student E was not able to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts taught, the majority of his classmates were. After this lesson on the concept of cycles, 29 of the 34 five- and six-year-olds (85%) were able demonstrate an understanding of the concept of "cycles". As the classroom teachers continue their study of cycles, seasons, and the bigger idea of "how weather all over the world influences living things", they will have to keep a close watch on those five students who were unable to demonstrate an understanding of cycles and carefully scaffold the learning engagements so that these students too, will be able to access the challenging, significant, engaging, and relevant curriculum going on in the kindergarten classrooms.

After reading about how kindergartners used the Visible Thinking Routine "I Used to Think ..., Now I Think ..." to demonstrate their understanding of concepts, how could you use "I Used to Think ..., Now I Think ..." in your instructional practice?

Chalk Talk

At the beginning of a unit of inquiry, a teacher has the important responsibility of creating a desire within her students to know about and understand a particular concept. During this initial “invitation” phase of the inquiry, teachers need to set up learning engagements where students can feel safe enough to take risks, ask questions, explore, be engaged, share their background knowledge, and to think outside the box. Yes, this initial step is a pre-assessment; it is essential that the teacher knows what the students know, understand, and are able to do as they dive into the unit of inquiry. However, this first step is more than just figuring out what students already know about a particular concept and collecting student questions. It is about capturing the hearts, brains, and spirits of the kids and igniting authentic interest in the concepts & topics being studied. (It is important to note that these ideas about this first step in the inquiry cycle are not my own. They all came from our school’s staff, when we completed the Visual Thinking Routine, “I used to think … Now I think” about the inquiry process at a recent professional development. I simply aggregated their responses to create our unique inquiry cycle: Invitation-Investigation-Demonstration.)

Because this first step in the inquiry process is so influential to the success of the study, the learning engagement that the teacher decides to complete with her students must be a significant and engaging one. Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison have included seven Visual Thinking Routines for introducing and exploring ideas in their 2011 book, 
Making Thinking Visible. Chalk Talk is one of those routines that teachers can use to “uncover prior knowledge, ideas, and questioning.” The routine is an “open discussion on paper; it ensures that all voices are heard and it gives students thinking time," (p. 51).

Recently, a second-grade teacher was preparing to begin a unit of inquiry with a central idea of: people influence the world in positive ways. During this unit of inquiry, students inquire into the characteristics of a hero, people who have made a difference, one’s own personal strengths, and how people can make a difference in the world. To spark her students’ interest in these particular concepts, she wrote several prompts on large sheets of chart paper and placed them on tables around the room. Her students had markers and she invited them to silently move freely from poster to poster, recording their responses to the prompts. Below are the "finished" products:

With these posters, the teacher not only excited her students about the idea of studying heroes who have made a difference both in the past and in the present, but she was able to efficiently collect valuable information about what the students already know, understand, and are able to do. She can now use this information to tailor future lessons to meet the specific needs of her students.

For instance, during a subsequent lesson, the teacher helped the students aggregate the information they wrote down from the "what is a hero" poster to create a working definition of a "hero".

Now, as students learn about heroes through reading, writing, and viewing a variety of multiple sources throughout the unit of inquiry, they can "test" their definition of what a hero is and continue to adapt it.

Building on the success she had with the original chalk talk routine, the teacher wanted to use the same Visible Thinking Routine, but in a different way. She knew the students already were familiar with the process, so they were ready to apply that familiar process to new content

As a way to continue to inquire into heroes, the teacher introduced the students to the poem "Lincoln", by Nancy Byrd Turner. Knowing that the poem was beyond the independent reading level of second graders, her plan to scaffold the activity was to copy each stanza of the poem onto a separate piece of chart paper. She even made the point to the second graders that she divided the poem into fourths (math connection). She then had the students read the poem, stanza by stanza, noting their ideas about what they thought the author was trying to communicate with each stanza.

Since learning about how this particular second grade teacher used the Visible Thinking Routine "Chalk Talk" in her classroom, other members of the team showed me how they have used it in the past with their students. Here are some examples of how other second grade classrooms used this Visible Thinking Routine as they studied communities last fall:

After reading about how members of the second grade team are using the Visible Thinking Routine "Chalk Talk" to introduce and explore new topics and concepts with their students, how could you use "Chalk Talk, in your instructional practice?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Teaching comprehension strategies to students using engaging and challenging texts

One morning, an elementary teacher casually asked the students if they had heard about an event currently in the news: the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that had gone missing. The students started to share the bits and pieces of information that they had heard from various sources and instinctively, the teacher started to make the students’ thinking visible by writing down on the board what the students were saying, under the heading: “What we think we know”. Sensing that some of the information on their list was faulty, the teacher instructed the students to do a little research on their Chromebooks to either confirm or debunk the ‘facts’ that they had amassed.

The students took to the internet, searching for news stories and articles that would give them the information they needed. Students also wrote down questions that came up as they read further about the current event. Moving around the room of engaged students, the teacher realized that what had started as a ‘mini-inquiry’ (Daniels, H. & Harvey, S. (2009).Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.) could easily be turned into a whole-group mini reading lesson.

Following the scope and sequence of the reading curriculum, students had been learning the comprehension strategy of comparing. Learning this particular strategy allowed students to meet the Minnesota ELA Reading Benchmark: “Compare and contrast texts in different forms ... in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.” Over a break, the teacher designed a learning experience for the students that would allow them to apply the comprehension strategy of comparing, while still motivating them with their interest in the missing plane.

To support the students’ learning, the teacher identified three different articles about the missing plane: one from CNN, one from Al Jazeera, and one from Fox News. (NOTE: the texts were complex, but the students were capable of reading and understanding the articles selected with appropriate support. To find a general reading level of texts online try these resources: or The students were to compare the texts, noting important similarities and differences. Through the structure of this purposeful inquiry, the students were able to extract meaning from the texts they read and come to the conceptual understanding that news articles are written from the unique perspective of the journalist (and the journalist’s organization) and it is the responsibility of readers to synthesize what they read and make judgements for themselves.

After reading about teaching comprehension strategies to students using engaging, relevant, challenging, and significant texts, what is:
  • An instructional practice you’ll continue to use because of the story.
  • An instructional practice you currently use that you’ll reexamine in light of the story.
  • An instructional practice you don’t currently use, but will try because of what you read in the story.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Using Field Trips to Learn About Concepts

Field trips are one of the highlights of many students' school experience. They're remembered for many years afterward. Additionally, these trips to outdoor learning centers, museums, and performance halls provide experiences to children who might not normally have the opportunities to go to such places.

However, field trips can also be remarkable opportunities for learning about life's big ideas. In a Primary Years Program, we call these big ideas concepts: mental constructs that are timeless, abstract, universal, and transferrable to a variety of contexts.

Just like in our classrooms, when we take kids on a field trip, we cannot leave student learning about concepts up to chance. We cannot assume that they'll just learn these abstract concepts by simply going on the trip. Rather, it is imperative that we set up opportunities for students to engage with these complex ideas either before, during, or after the field trip, so that they are able to construct their own conceptual understanding.

Recently, as the sixth grade teachers were preparing to take their students to a history museum, they contemplated the question, "What do we want the students to understand after they've left?" It is important to note here that individual teachers had particular hopes and dreams regarding what their students got out of the experience to the history museum. However, they synthesized all their ideas and collaboratively came up with the following conceptual understanding: The students understand that history is made up of real stories of real people that have many different perspectives.

Next, teachers asked themselves, "How will we know that they understand it?" Teachers thought that by asking their students upon their return, "What is history?" they'd be able to make their students' thinking visible about the concept of history. This type of question asks students to concentrate on the subject's form, a key concept in the PYP.

Once the students returned from the History Center, one teacher grouped the students into small groups of 3-4 students to answer the question. Based on the groups' responses, the class created the following concept map.

Day 1 (green); Day 2 (blue)
After a two-day discussion, students were able to identify that history, in addition to being important events that people will or should remember, facts, and details in the past, involves people and their stories. To further develop the students' conceptual understanding of history, the teacher continued the same process with all the other PYP key concepts (function, causation, connection, change, perspective, reflection, & responsibility).

Based on this story, ask:
  • How do you use field trips to expand and deepen your students' conceptual thinking?
  • Do you find it is effective?
  • Is there a way to change how you use field trips to strengthen students’ conceptual thinking to have a greater impact on their learning?