Friday, April 25, 2014

Learning about key concepts during guided reading

In the Primary Years Program (PYP), like in all elementary schools, much importance is placed on learning how to read and write. Learning these essential skills, along with other literacy skills of speaking, listening, viewing, presenting, and non-verbally communicating, is absolutely necessary. However, sometimes we forget why students must learn about, with, from, and through literacy.

Preparing our students for high-stakes, mandatory, standardized testing sometimes distracts us from providing students with literacy learning that is engaging, relevant, challenging, and significant. In reality though, the best literacy "test-prep" we can provide our students is meaningful literacy instruction that is learned in the context of life's biggest ideas; in the PYP, we call these big ideas key and related concepts.

Recently, in fifth grade, students were reading the guided reading book "Clean Up City Park!" (a leveled text from Benchmark Literacy).

The text is written as a persuasive letter, written from the perspective of a child to the mayor, urging the mayor to get the city park cleaned up.

The fifth graders read through the text under the guidance of their teacher during guided reading, focusing on the development of particular comprehension and metacognitive reading strategies. Afterward, the teacher encouraged the students to enter into the PYP Action Cycle: reflect-choose-act.

As students reflected on their learning, they were able to make a connection to their own lives: they too had been around green spaces that needed to be cleaned up; in particular, the school grounds. Once they had chosen their action, the students identified key concepts that would help them organize their action plan. The teacher recorded the students' thinking about the key concepts as the students came up with them.

Using their collectively-identified key concepts as a guide, students began to independently plan their action. They used the key concepts of causation, connection, function and change as a framework to think about and plan their action.


The students enlisted the help of second graders, telling them about their plan which allowed the fifth graders to develop their literacy skills of presenting. Together the second graders and this small, guided-reading group of fifth graders plan on cleaning up the green space around their school. Most importantly though, working with the key concepts in a meaningful context allowed students to develop a better understanding of these big ideas.

Giving time and space for students to engage in relevant, challenging, and significant learning, is the best way to develop deep thinkers and thus raise reading test scores. Many reading researchers, including Knapp (1995), Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, & Rodriguez (2003; 2005), and Taylor & Peterson (2008) have found that when teachers encourage students to think about texts at a higher level more than other teachers, they see more growth in their students' reading scores (as cited in Peterson & Taylor, 2012, p. 297).

After reading about how 5th graders developed a better conceptual understanding about life's big ideas - the PYP key concepts - during meaningful literacy instruction, how could you or have you incorporated learning about key and related concepts into your literacy instruction?

Works cited: Peterson, D.S. & Taylor, B.M. (2012). Using higher order questioning to accelerate students' growth in reading. The Reading Teacher, 65(5), p. 295-304.


On Friday, March 28, 2014, I wrote about how first grade students made their thinking about rocks visible using the Visible Thinking Routine "Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate" from the book Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison. Here is the story of how second graders used that same routine to make their thinking about heroes visible:

For the last several weeks in second grade, students have been investigating how people influence the world. They have been inquiring into the characteristics of a hero as well as particular people who have made a difference in the world.

Throughout the inquiry, students continuously generated a list of influential people as they read, listened, learned, and discussed different heroes.

Toward the end of the unit, as a way to synthesize all they had learned, their teacher led the students through a learning engagement where students had to sort the influential heroes into particular categories that the students created. Some of the categories the students thought of matched categories we all would think of, when thinking of heroes: inventors, scientists, presidents, writers.

The students also sorted their heroes into less-conventional groups: risk-takers and speakers.

As students were grouping the influential people about whom they had learned, they started forming a group that they couldn't name. As the students struggled to identify a singular word that would help identify the unifying characteristic that all the individuals in the group shared, they came up with the phrase "Treated Unfairly".

However there were some "heroes" that students were planning on putting in that group, who weren't treated unfairly. That phrase described some, but not all, so they still needed another group! Students continued to struggle to identify a singular word that would help name that particular group of people, although they knew that there was something special about this group; they were all good people, hard workers, who tried to make a difference for other people, other humans. At this point, the teacher intervened and introduced the word humanitarian to the students.

As the students sorted their heroes into the categories they had established, they quickly realized that certain influential people easily belonged in multiple categories. Their teacher suggested they add those individuals to as many groups as was necessary.

Then, the class connected those heroes who showed up in different categories. On the lines that they used to connect the heroes in the different groups, the students wrote character traits, which often were the PYP attitudes (e.g. independent, confident, creativity) and attributes of the IB International Learner Profile (e.g. knowledgeable, thinker, risk-taker).

Now that students had generated a list of influential people, sorted those individuals into groups the students identified, and made connections between the groups with character traits, the teacher could invite students to continue learning about other heroes that might fit into those categories (elaborate).

"What other presidents could we learn about?"

"Are there other risk-takers that influenced the world that we haven't learned about yet?"

"Where could we find more information on different humanitarians?"

This invitation to students to reflect on their learning and to choose how they'll continue learning will increase the likelihood that students will engage in thoughtful and appropriate action.

After reading about how 2nd graders made their thinking visible about the heroes they were studying, how could you or have you had your students make their thinking visible with the Visible Thinking Routine "Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate"?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thinking about the PYP Attitudes

In a Primary Years Program, we strive to provide our students with a well-rounded education; one that meets students' cognitive, intellectual, social, and physical needs. Whereas we work hard to promote the learning of essential knowledge and skills, we know we can’t leave the construction of conceptual understandings up to chance. Nor can we just assume that students will take independent, responsible action in response to their learning, without our guidance.

In the same way, we must provide explicit learning opportunities for students to develop particular attitudes. This does not mean that teachers are responsible for directly instructing their students on the specific dispositions that are known as the PYP Attitudes. Rather, PYP educators must set up learning engagements where students can meaningfully construct an understanding of the attitudes through the inquiry process.

Image taken from Time Space Education Blog. The attitudes - appreciation, commitment, confidence, cooperation, creativity, curiosity, empathy, enthusiasm, independence, integrity, respect, tolerance - are shown here as "roots" of the tree.
Recently, as second grade students were inquiring into how people influence the world in positive ways, they watched a film about Ruby Bridges, an African-American student in 1960 who was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South (New Orleans).

After, the classroom teacher seized the opportunity to investigate how the students were thinking about the central idea (people influence the world in positive ways) as well as to check for the students' understanding of the PYP Attitudes. The teacher posed the following two questions:

The students had been learning about, demonstrating, discussing, thinking about, and working with the PYP Attitudes all school year. To support their reflection on the attitudes demonstrated in the movie, the students used the front side of the school's PYP Essential Elements Mat.

Front side of the Essential Elements Mat

Back side of the Essential Elements Mat

In the examples below, it is evident that these 7 and 8 year-old students have an insightful understanding of the PYP Attitudes. Because the teacher gave the students very board prompts to think about the attitudes in the film, students were able to chose uniquely different ways of making their thinking visible. Some chose to reflect in a paragraph, whereas other students used bubbles or tables.

After reading about how 2nd graders made their thinking visible about the PYP Attitudes, how could you or have you had your students think about and reflect on the PYP Attitudes?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Writing conceptual statements with students

In a Primary Years Program, we must find a balance between “acquisition of essential knowledge and skills, development of conceptual understanding, demonstration of positive attitudes, and taking of responsible action,” (Making the PYP Happen, p. 10).

Learning specific factual content and skills is important, however educators must also identify the timeless, abstract, universal, and transferable concepts they want their students to learn. “The factual knowledge is what students must know in order to describe, discuss, explain, or analyze the deeper concepts. One cannot understand the conceptual level without the supporting factual knowledge. But there must be a synergy (emphasis added) between the two levels if we are to systematically develop intelligence,” (H. Lynn Erickson, p. 3, Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, 2007, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press).

As students work within the synergy between specific knowledge and universal concepts, they should make their thinking visible by synthesizing their learning into a conceptual statement. Erickson, calls these statements generalizations: “Two or more concepts stated in a relationship that meet these criteria: generally universal application, generally timeless, abstract (to different degrees), supported by different examples (situational). Enduring, essential understandings for a discipline,” (Erickson, 2007, p. 31).

Not long ago, I was working with fifth-grade students on the concepts of decisions, choices, and impacts by studying specific decisions Nelson Mandela made in his life and the impacts they had on his life, his country, and the world. (To get a more complete idea of what I did in that lesson, see my last blog post on Flow Maps.) Once students had read about, described, discussed, explained, and analyzed Mandela’s decisions and their impacts, I wrote the words, “Decisions, Choices, Impacts” on the board and asked the students, “based on what we learned today about Nelson Mandela, his decisions, and their impacts, what can we say that we learned about decisions, choices, and impacts in general?” I told the students that the first idea didn't have to be perfect, but we just needed to put something up so we could start to work with it.

The first student volunteered the following statement:

Next, a student tried to offer a completely different statement and I encouraged her to make edits to the one we already had, instead of completely starting over. Another student suggested the following edit:

When I asked her to explain her thinking (in order to make it visible!), she said, "because you could do something bad and it will also impact your life."

Then, another student mentioned the following edit:

I asked her to explain her thinking and she said that our decisions have impacts right away and when you grow up (we had discussed short- and long-term impacts during the lesson). So, we shouldn't just say, "when you grow up." I asked her if there was anything we could add instead, to communicate that decisions have impacts in both the short- and long-term, so she proposed the following addition:

After that, a student said he wanted to make the following revision:

When I asked him to explain his thinking, he said, "We can do lots of things - like pick something up (as he mimed picking up an object) - that don't impact our lives. But we talked about what happens when we make a decision."

At this point in the lesson, students weren't volunteering any more edits or revisions to the statement, so I read it aloud to them: "If you make a decision it can have an impact on your life in the future." Then, I told them we had to "test" our statement to make sure it was conceptual:

"Does this statement apply to Nelson Mandela?"

YES! the students responded.

"Could this statement apply to us?"

YES! the students responded.

"Ok, if this statement applies to us here in Minnesota, would it apply to a student in France?" 

YES! the students responded.

"If it applies to us here in 2014, would it apply to a 10-year-old in 1914?"

YES! The student responded.

Although I knew that our statement met the criteria for a generalization as outlined by Erickson, I had one more change I wanted to make. I told the students that since our statement applied to everyone, I thought we should change the pronouns "you" and "your" to "we" and "our". They consented and we were left with our final version:

Note: ordinarily, when crafting conceptual statements, generalizations, central ideas and lines of inquiry, it is advised to avoid pronouns. However, in the moment, working with the fifth graders, I felt using pronouns in our conceptual statement was appropriate to keep our statement directly relevant to the lives of the students.

After reading about how fifth graders wrote a conceptual statement based on the synergistic learning they had done, how could you or have you written conceptual statements with your students to synthesize their learning?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Flow maps

In an earnest attempt to teach more conceptually, teachers must give students tools with which they can make their conceptual thinking visible. For instance, students can use a circle map (a type of Thinking Map®to investigate the concept of form while when working with the concept of connection, they can use a double bubble concept map (another type of Thinking Map®).

Making students’ conceptual thinking visible is beneficial for a number of reasons. Students benefit from having “a greater awareness of the significant role that thinking plays in cultivating their own understanding,” (Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison in Making Thinking Visible, p. 15). When students are more acutely aware of their own thinking skills and how they use those skills to construct understanding, they gain greater independence in the learning process. Furthermore, making students’ thinking visible is beneficial for the teacher because it “provides us with the information we as teachers need to plan opportunities that will take students’ learning to the next level and enable continued engagement with the ideas being explored,” (the Making Thinking Visible folks again, this time, p. 27).

The flow map (a type of Thinking Map®) is a tool that students can use to make their thinking visible when they’re working with the concept of causation. (Note: although Thinking Maps aren’t from the Making Thinking Visible text, they fit the definition of a thinking routine, as define by one of its authors here.) When teaching a lesson to fifth graders recently about the short- and long-term impacts of decisions, I decided to put that thinking routine to work with them.

I was teaching a lesson I had written for an economics class I took at the University of Minnesota. Our summative project is to write a lesson using children’s literature to teach an MN Economic Benchmark (2011). I selected this fifth grade benchmark to teach: Economic Reasoning Skills ( Apply a decision-making process to identify an alternative choice that could have been made for a historical event; explain the probable impact of that choice. For example: Decision-making processes - a decision tree, PACED decision-making process (Problem, Alternative, Criteria, Evaluation, Decision). Instead of using a decision tree or the PACED decision-making process as the benchmark suggests, I elected to use a flow map, so that students could see the way that decisions caused subsequent impacts.

As I invited students into the inquiry, I asked them what they knew about Nelson Mandela and Apartheid in South Africa. Then, I showed a short video that gave students a (very) brief overview of what Apartheid was. Once students understood (very) generally the situation in South Africa during Nelson Mandela’s life, I read them the picture book Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson as a way to investigate the connection between decisions and their impacts. As I read, we worked together to create a flow map, showing how the decisions of his parents, and then later on his own decisions, impacted future decisions Mandela would make, which would ultimately impact South Africa, its history, and its people in dramatic ways.

This is the original flow map we created as a class. Please note that students used the abbreviation "N" for Nelson Mandela. Because we were running short on time, I skipped the part about how Mandela went into hiding and fled to Egypt. That is why that decision did not make the flow map that is shown above. Also, I realized after teaching the lesson that we should have added the ultimate impact to the flow map: that Apartheid ended, although that was a major part of our discussion.
Then, in accordance with the economic benchmark and to further investigate the connection between decisions and subsequent impacts, I instructed students to creatively and critically think of an alternative choice that Mandela could have picked at any point during his life, instead of one of the decisions he did make. Students then needed to use the flow map structure to show the probable impacts of that alternative choice (with a clean sheet of paper laying OVER the original flow map). Below are examples of the students’ thinking.

This student decided to change the third decision made in Mandela's life (according to the text). Notice that with this alternative choice, Mandela never became involved in the anti-Apartheid movement, nor did he marry Winnie as was detailed in the book. This student clearly understands how different Mandela's life would have been had he made a different decision early on in his life. 

This student decided to change the fifth decision made in Mandela's life (according to the text). Notice this student understood the impact his decision to give up protesting Apartheid would have had on that set of laws, the history of South Africa, and its people ("Apartheid continued to go on"). 

This student also decided to change the fifth decision made in Mandela's life (according to the text). It is interesting how this student recognized Mandela as a leader because when he decided to give up the anti-Apartheid protests as an "alternative choice" this student recognizes that others would have given up as well. 

Finally, as a way to give students the chance to demonstrate their conceptual understanding of the connection between decisions and their short- and long-term impacts, I asked the students if they could decide to take a break from reading over their 9-day spring break. Students were given the option of showing their thinking in paragraph form or in a flow map. I was checking to see if they understood that the decisions they make today have impacts that will last long into the future.

This student, who decided to demonstrate her conceptual understanding in paragraph form, was able to identify both a short-term impact ("if you don't read you might not be as fast as you could before") and a long-term impact ("I decide to read because it is good for you and later on in my life I will be a good reader") of a decision. 

This student used a flow map to show her conceptual understanding of decisions and their impacts. She too writes about short-term impacts of her decision to keep reading ("I won't get behind in reading") and long-term impacts of the same decision ("I decide to go to college after high school"). 

After reading about how fifth graders used a "flow map" as a thinking routine to construct conceptual understanding, how could you use or have you used "flow maps" in your instructional practice?