Prioritizing Thinking

See/Think/WonderPerhaps the most important thing my students need to know about me and our class as we begin the school year is the value we will place on thinking. Our class content focuses on reading, but the primary learning goal is to become more thoughtful–to be better thinkers. So on the first day, we start by prioritizing thinking. I don’t want our focus to be on procedures, rules, or even our classroom community. Those things are important, but the main core of everything we do is with the goal of becoming better, more thoughtful thinkers.

With that in mind one of the first activities we did is a See-Think-Wonder about 6th grade reading and our classroom. I gave my students a few Post-It notes and asked them to spend a few minutes exploring the classroom and writing down the things they saw. We talked about the need to gather evidence and pay attention to details. (These are skills we will use to help us become better readers, too.) The whole room was open to the students. I encouraged to explore every facet of the classroom including the closets, bookshelves, filing cabinets, and drawers. I challenged them “to research” the room thoroughly. After a few minutes, I called them back to their seats to complete their lists and share what they found.

Once we talked  about their “I See” lists, I asked them to begin interpreting, drawing conclusions, and making inferences about the things they noticed (Again, these are skills we will use to grow as readers, too.) They developed a set of “I think” statements. I gave them a few minutes to come up with as fluent of a list as they could; then, I dared them to come up with a few more. Their conclusions fascinated me. As they shared their thinking, I reinforced how important it is to base our conclusions and inferences on evidence by asking, “What makes you say that?” so that had to support their reasoning.

Finally, I challenged the students to take their thinking to a deeper level. We discussed that best way to push our thinking is to ask good questions. We talked about the value of questioning and concluded that “good questions” inspire us to think deeper–to explore our ideas further. (Yep, a skill we will use to further develop as readers.) “Good answers” can be helpful sometimes, but they tend to curb thinking more than deepen it. I asked the students to consider their “I think” statements and take them to a deeper level by developing “I wonder” statements about their original conclusions.  Again, we shared our thinking with our partners and with the class. Then, we prominently posted our thinking where it can be seen by everyone in class and any visitors we may have.

Again, the goal was to help the students understand (from the very first activity) their thinking is highly valued. Here are a few random pictures I captured of different students’ thinking about the class, our space, or me:

I see. . .

See 1 See 2 See 3

I think. . .

Think 3 Think 2 Think 1

I wonder. . .

Wonder 3 Wonder 2 Wonder 1

I’ve written previous posts about this first-day activity in past years. You can read those posts here and here.



This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

The Story of Learning, Part 2

story of learningAs mentioned in my last post, I’ve struggled as I consider the question “What will be the story of learning in your classroom this year?” I’m a sucker for a good story. It’s why I love good books, great movies, and skilled teaching. All involve good storytelling, and I can get lost in a good story for hours and hours if time permits. I want our story of learning in my classroom to be a great story. It has to be a great story. My students deserve nothing less. But…I’m not sure I know exactly what that story should be yet. After all, I haven’t met most of my students yet. How can I possibly know what our story should be?

It’s important to develop my students’ voice. It’s important they have choice about their learning and have ownership of it. Their thinking matters. I know what skills, concepts, and dispositions they need to develop, but this isn’t really my story of learning. It’s theirs. As I’ve thought more about this question (while running 14 miles this past weekend), I’ve decided my students and I need to plot the story of our learning together.

Good stories don’t happen by chance. They have important elements that come together to create a powerful story. We need to consider those same elements as we plot the story of our learning. Here is a quick list of some questions I plan to work through with my classes as we develop the story of our learning together. We’ll start contemplating and discussing these together during the first few days of school.

Setting: Most of our story will take place in Room 218 at Presbyterian Day School in Memphis, Tennessee. Nevertheless, I want my students to consider the type of environment we want our classroom to be. What will be the tone and ethos of our room? What should we do to make the most of our space? What pledges do we need to make to each other to create the environment we want?

Character: What types of learners do we need to be? What attitudes and behaviors should we adopt to create a great learning story? How should we treat each other? What do you see as your strengths as a learner, as a reader? Where do you want to improve?

Conflict/Rising Action: What are the problems we want to solve? What questions should we explore? How will we handle disagreements among us? What are the internal and external conflicts that might get in the way of our learning? How should we address them? What will we do when we struggle or when things are hard?

Climax: What would be the greatest thing you could do this year individually? What do we want to accomplish as a group? What aspects of learning and school matter to us the most?

Falling Action/Resolution: What would need to happen in order for you to say you had a successful year in this class? When you look back at 6th grade, what do you think you’ll remember?

Theme: What is the main goal we want to achieve this year? What are the “throughlines” that tie all our learning together? What are the big questions about conflict (our grade level theme) we need to consider?

I’m out of time to write. Does any of this make sense? What other questions should my students and I consider as we “plot” our year together?


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

The Story of Learning, Part 1

The Story of LearningBeginning the school year is incredibly hectic for me and my wife. We are both teachers working in different schools in different systems. We also have four children—in four different schools. Each with its own unique start of school schedule, traditions, and expectations. In addition to this, I’m shifting to a Readers’ Workshop approach to my classes this year, and I’m once again training for the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. It’s Friday morning. I’m tired and feeling overwhelmed. My students arrive next Wednesday, and I’m not ready—not even close.

At one of our first-day meetings, my instructional leader asked us to stop and reflect for a moment. She asked, “What will be the story of learning in your classroom this year?” The start of a new school year is an opportunity for a new start. This is my fourth new start teaching sixth grade reading, but Susan reminded me my students only get one sixth grade year. They only get to be a sixth grader one time.

As I sat there trying to reflect on the learning in my room, my mind was blank. What will the story of learning be in my classroom this year? I had no idea. All I could think about was the lists I need to complete, the schedules I need to coordinate, the books I still need to read, the forms I need to make, the files I need to organize, the shelves I need to rearrange, the lessons I need to create, and the planning I need to start. I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t picture the story of learning. I wanted to see it, but I couldn’t.

I want to stop all of this craziness. I want to spend some time dreaming and wishing—imagining what our year of learning in sixth grade reading will be like. I really do. I cannot think of anything I’d rather ponder, but I’m overwhelmed by the start of school. There’s too much to do. My checklists runneth over.

I’m not dismissing Susan’s suggestion. I’m holding on to it. I woke up with it early this morning hoping I could  steal a few minutes to sit and reflect—to zoom in on what I truly want for my students. And yet, my lists keep calling to me. Here in the quiet of this morning, I’m still being pulled toward a more visible form of productivity. So for now, I’m just going to keep carrying the question in my heart and mind: What will the story of learning be in your classroom this year?


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

Prepping for Back-to-School

back-to-schoolMy back-to-school in-service starts Wednesday. I’m looking forward to the new school year and everything a new beginning signifies. Over the past few days, I’ve reflected on how my approach to the start of school has changed through the years. A video shared by Hugh McDonald on Twitter and the discussion that followed sparked my thoughts. While this teacher has made some choices I wouldn’t make, I appreciate the passion and excitement he’s bringing to his work. He want san inviting space for his students and I can appreciate that. However, I was somewhat surprised by the comments of several on YouTube who equated his decorating with his teaching. Those are NOT the same thing. I’ve sat in rooms with four bare walls and learned from some extraordinary teachers. I’ve also sat in some beautiful rooms where the teaching was awful and the learning absent. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for an inviting space, but I see no correlation between one’s ability to decorate and his ability to teach.

Here’s the video Hugh shared:

I’m reminded of myself as I prepped in my first few years teaching. As a rookie teacher, I would start working in my room weeks before the students arrived. I’d spend hours (if not days) arranging desks, decorating walls, writing names in textbooks, creating lists of rules and procedures, and ensuring I outlined and explained it all in a typed, class syllabus handed out the first day. This wasn’t necessarily a bad use of my time and energy. After all as a single guy with few responsibilities outside my job, I had the time, and I had plenty of nervous energy about each upcoming year, too. But I’m not sure it was the best use of my time either.

After fifteen years, I don’t spend too much time decorating and arranging the space before the students arrive. I do break my room into two primary sections. I arrange one part as a reading/living room area and the other part as an instructional side complete with desks in pods to ease conversation and small group work. The only things I put on the walls are the posters required by my school (standards and language of thinking) and the visible thinking anchor charts we use most often. The only real decorating I do is outside my door where I creatively (and tediously) display the names of my homeroom students. We post and share student thinking (usually on Post-It® notes or written on the IdeaPaint™ wall) on the rest of the board and wall space in my room.

During in-service, I try to spend most of my “room work” time planning and reflecting on the learning that I should happen in my class. I don’t spend time considering rules and procedures. The students and I work together develop these in the first weeks as we get to know each other. One of my goals is to have a student-centered, inquiry-driven classroom, where each student knows his voice and choice matters. Obviously, there are a few non-negotiable procedures we must follow (like what to do during emergencies), but when I can include the students in making decisions, I do.

As a husband and parent, I have demands on my time I didn’t have when I began teaching. My vacation time from school is valuable time with my family, and it’s important I be present with my wife and children investing in my relationships with them. Summer is time when I can truly focus on them. Therefore, I don’t spend much time at school in the weeks before in-service. I understand why some teachers do, but I don’t. Sure, I still read professional texts and work on my professional goals during the break. Summer is a great time to reflect on my work, but you will no longer find me spending the last few weeks in my classroom burning the candle at both ends and trying to get my classroom perfectly decorated and my syllabus appropriately typed.

What about you? How do you spend the weeks leading up to the start of school? How has your prep for the start of school changed through the years?


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.