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.

#MICON13: Classrooms of Understanding

UnderstandingThis week Alice and I are sharing a workshop at The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence 2013 Conference.  We spend a significant amount of time in our classrooms helping our students scratch below the surface of what they are reading to deepen their understanding. There are several instructional tools we use to do this, and we were asked to share what we do. We’ve titled our session “Classrooms of Understanding: Scratching Below the Surface” and have provided the following description in the conference brochure:

What does student understanding look like? How do innovative teachers equip today’s learners with the critical and creative thinking skills needed to thrive in a changing world? In this excavation of understanding, we will uncover the essentials of student understanding, delve into routines and questioning strategies that develop habits for critical and creative thinking, and unearth best instructional practices in order to transform today’s classrooms into places of deep student learning. Join us. You’ll dig it!

Participants will gain:

  1. Insight into what student understanding looks like
  2. Tools for developing (and assessing) students’ critical and creative thinking
  3. Familiarity with deep questioning strategies and visible thinking routines
  4. Awareness of the 4 aspects of creativity and how to scaffold them into instruction
  5. Reflection on current practice and transformation of classrooms into places of deep thinking and understanding

Here are the slides we used for the session:

by Philip Cummings and Alice Parker

One of the primary things Alice and I are sharing in our workshop are some of the visible thinking routines we learned through Harvard’s Project Zero and use regularly in our classrooms. We only have a limited amount of time, but we hope teacher’s will get to experience See/Think/Wonder, 3-2-1 Bridge, a CSI: Colour/Symbol/Image, Connect/Extend/Challenge, and I Used to Think…Now I Think… Our hope is that teacher’s and school leaders will use these routines to help deepen their learners’ understanding and raise the own awareness of the learners’ mastery.

 Below are a few pictures that came out of the session on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

Classrooms of UnderstandingClassrooms of UnderstandingIf you’re in Memphis to attend the conference, we’d love to have you join us. We have another workshop at 1:00 PM today. We will be in room D109 at PDS.


Running Thoughts: First Week Reflections, Litter, and Planning Ahead

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Writing limit: 30 minutes

I ran 8 miles (a new PR) this morning in 1:24. I’ thrilled that I was able to keep at a 10:30 minutes/mile pace, but I must confess the 7th and 8th miles were tough. It felt good to run that far, and I burned enough calories that I think I can eat for two people today. 🙂

First Week Reflections

This past week at school was our first with the students. We had a half day on Wednesday and full days the rest of the week.

Wednesday was mostly a logistical day. I distributed supplies, assigned the lockers, and allowed time for organizing. I had already mailed the boys a get-to-know-you questionnaire that I asked them to bring and we needed a few minutes to collect forms and paperwork. The day started with convocation, then additional homeroom time, and I had to explain some grade-level procedures that are different from fifth grade but that only took a few minutes. We spent most of the homeroom time getting situated. During reading class I wanted the boys collaborate and present on the first day so I had them interview one another then introduce each other to the class. We only had 25 minutes, but the boys amazed me by how quickly some opened up and starting sharing with our class. I was reminded how much each of us desires to be known.

Alice, Julia, and I used the See, Think, Wonder thinking routine on Thursday to have the students inquire into 6th grade reading, the reading classrooms, and the reading teachers. We started by having them come up with a few deep questions they have as we begin the year. What did they want to know? We share and posted them. Then we gave the boys a few minutes to explore the rooms in a way similar to what we did last year. Then, we began the thinking routine. I’m not going to go into too much detail here because Alice and I want to co-write a complete reflection on the day. As the class ended, we asked the boys to think up a headline for the day’s learning to share with us as they left the room.

Yesterday, we began modeling for the boys how to do a 3, 2, 1 Bridge. They are going to have to write a bridge about themselves so we decided we would walk them through the steps of writing a bridge about a person and made ourselves the object of the practice bridge. This is another lesson I want to write about and share more completely so I won’t go into too many details except to say we talked at length about brainstorming, sharing wild ideas, and what makes a good bridge (metaphor or simile). It was fun day with the boys working together to collaborate and to think critically and creatively.


As I ran this morning, I also noticed the amount of trash along Seed Tick Road. It really annoyed me that people would just toss their garbage out on the street, and I spent at least a mile going through an inner rant that I won’t share the details of here. However, let me say this: PICK UP AFTER YOURSELF! I find it incredibly selfish that people leave their trash for others to clean up.

Planning Ahead

This coming week is a short week in class for my students. On Thursday and Friday we will be at our class breakaway at Victory Ranch. Before we leave, we need to take the STAR reading test, create and share bridges about ourselves, consider what a thoughtful reader looks like, and design our metacognition bookmark. We need to be on our game in order to be ready for small group reading when we return from Victory Ranch.

Did you start school this week? How did it go? I do my best to avoid discussing rules, policies, and procedures during the first few days with my students. Instead, we focus on thinking well and getting to know each other. What do you do to kick off a new school year?

#MCHunter Tools for Creative Thinking

As our Master Class was debriefing yesterday on what we had observed in the World Peace Game, John Hunter began telling us about the “mental toolkit” he shares with his students to help them think creatively. We didn’t have time for John to share all of it, but it was interesting information and some of it was new to me.

The first tool John shared was teaching students how to use FFOE to assess their creative thinking. As a sample activity, John explained that he would show the students a coffee mug and ask them to brainstorm ways that the mug can be used other than as a container (i.e a door stop, a paperweight, a drum, etc.). At first they will find it hard to think this way, but as they practice, they will become better at it. FFOE stands for:

  • Fluency – producing as many ideas as one possibly can
  • Flexibility – producing ideas that demonstrate variety or different approaches
  • Originality – producing ideas that are unique or unusual
  • Elaboration – producing ideas with detail or enriched characteristics

Then, John shared with us his guidelines for brainstorming and his kinesthetic method for teaching it to his students. Fortunately, we captured his one on video:

The four guidelines are:

  1. Fluency – Produce as many ideas as you can
  2. Withhold Judgement – There are no bad ideas.
  3. Wild Ideas Ok – It is desirable to think outside the box.
  4. Piggyback Ideas – It is okay to have an idea that is similar to someone else’s thought or to expand on someone else’s suggestion.

Another tool that John uses with his students is something he calls a “Perspective Wheel.” I created a PowerPoint slide for my use that I thought I’d share. To use it, write the topic in the middle circle (yellow) then have the students identify four different perspectives that could be taken toward the topic (one for each blue quadrant) and explain how each perspective differs.This tool reminds me of the Visible Thinking Routine Circle of Viewpoints that I learned about at Project Zero last summer, and I think they might work well together.

The final tool John shared with us is the SCAMPER approach to creative thinking. SCAMPER is a mnemonic that stands for:

  • Substitute
  • Combine
  • Adapt
  • Maximize/Minimize
  • Put to Other Use
  • Eliminate/Elaborate
  • Reverse

This tool was completely new to me so I did a little searching and found a nice website that helps explain the tool and gives an example of how to use it. You might want to check it out.

In talking with Jamie Baker about teaching creativity I realized that I tend to get hung up thinking about creativity in terms of being artistic. Artistry is one type of creativity, but most creativity is really problem solving and learning how to approach something from a different direction. Jamie recommended that I read Michael Michalko’s Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius so I’ve added it to my Amazon Wishlist and will try to read it when I get through my current reading list.

What about you? What tools do you use to teach students to think creatively? What are your experiences using these or similar tools? Please leave a comment and share your ideas, experiences, and recommendations.

#MCHunter Day 1: Setting the Stage

Today, I attended the The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence’s Master Class with John Hunter. This morning, we observed Mr. Hunter as he facilitated the first day of the World Peace Game with a room full of local students. The students’ ages range from 9 to 14 years old, and my middle son Sam is one of the participants. (He’s now the “Head Arms Dealer.” Don’t you know I’m proud!) The Master Class participants include 12 adults (11 teachers) from across the country and around the world (Houston, Miami, San Francisco, Nashville, Memphis, New Zealand, Norway, and Vietnam). During the morning session, the adult observers looked for the following things:

  • How relationships form
  • Engagement
  • Role of teacher
  • Complexity’s role
  • Work the game does

After some brief introductions this morning, Mr. Hunter spent a significant amount of time explaining the game pieces and the board to the students. The board has four strata: submarine, surface, air, and space. Each stratum contains unique resources and the potential for conflicts and crises. The game is incredibly complex, and my curiosity piqued when Mr. Hunter explained that one reason for the complexity is to move students beyond their “analytical minds to their artistic minds.” As the students asked questions about individual things they could do in the game, Mr. Hunter repeatedly responded by telling them, “You can do anything you want as long it meets two criteria. First, you must be able to afford it. Second, you must be willing to deal with the consequences.” Costs and consequences. It’s obvious the game is designed to teach students that every action (or inaction) carries both a cost and a consequence.

Once he explained the pieces of the game, Mr. Hunter selected several students as central figures in the game. First, he identified a Secretary General of the United Nations, four Prime Ministers to represent the four countries, a Chairman of The World Bank, a Head Arms Dealer, and a Weather Goddess. These individuals then picked their cabinet members and underlings. Then the groups met to name their country and design their insignia. Each group was then introduced and the students were given their individual dossiers. John Hunter covered an immense amount of material for the first day, and I’m sure the students heads were spinning from all the information as well as their own excitement.

After lunch the adults reconvened to debrief on the morning session with John and Jamie Baker. We talked about some of the things we observed about how groups formed, how John selected leaders, how he prepares for class, and how he assesses learning. We also spent a little time talking about the formality/informality in how we address students and how that differs in our different cultures. We also briefly touched on the topic of power and empowering students.

After debriefing and a short break, we took some time to quietly reflect and answer the following questions:

  • Who are you?
  • Why are you here?
  • What do you hope to leave with?

I won’t go into my response to the first question in this post as most of that is available through other posts on this blog. However, I will answer the other questions briefly. I first learned about John Hunter and the World Peace Game through his TED talk over a year ago thanks to my PLN. I was fascinated by what he does. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you take the time to watch it.

Then, last November The Martin Institute showed the movie World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements here in Memphis, and I attended the screening.  Again, what John does in his classroom fascinated me. As someone who believes teaching critical and creative thinking skills is extremely important, I was inspired by John’s story and wanted to learn more.

So when The Martin Institute announced that John would keynote at the Summer Conference and offer Master Classes over the summer, I knew I wanted to attend. I’m extremely excited about this opportunity.

My hope is that I will leave this class with a few more tools in my toolbox for teaching creative thinking skills in my classroom. Not that I have mastered teaching critical thinking, but I feel more comfortable with critical thinking than with creativity.

Tonight’s homework is to respond to the following prompts:
How do you teach?
Why do you teach that way?
(Bonus: How are you intentional about building relationships?)
While I’m pretty certain I can go ahead and respond to these questions now, I’m going to wait and put them on my “Running Thoughts” agenda for tomorrow morning so that I can reflect on them more deeply.

Other Notes:

One quote that I wrote down today was from Susan who said, “If kids can’t fail (make mistakes), they can’t grow.” And my friend Stephanie piggy backed on that remark by suggesting that it might be a good idea for teachers to intentionally fail in front of their students early in the year in order to model how one handles making a mistake.

Book Recommendations From Today:

  • The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
  • Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
  • Cracking the Creativity Code by Michael Michalko
  • Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman

It’s been quite a first day, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. Please feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or comments about any of these notes or ideas.