An Unexpected Class Visitor

The Fruit of Making Thinking VisibleMy sixth graders and I recently began our student-driven inquiry and project-based learning on human rights. This is my second year to use project-based learning into my classroom, and I hope everything I learned from last year’s Dive Into PBL will merge with my growing expertise at making thinking visible to help my students better explore and understand the topic.

I have several drafts about our learning and the second iteration of this inquiry in my queue, but I’m not ready to share them yet. I need a few more days to reflect and write before publishing. Never fear though, friends, I have a goal of returning to reflect, write, and share on a regular schedule again soon. So…

A Little Background Information

This week my school with The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence and CASIE is hosting Project Zero Perspectives: How & Where Does Learning Thrive? As part of the conference, we invited educators to visit PDS during our regular school day to see how we have integrated ideas from Project Zero into our school. My students and I are in the middle of our research and inquiry, but we were expecting visitors to stop by our class this morning.

Over the past few days we have used several thinking routines to help us design our learning and explore our chosen topics. Specifically, we’ve used question starts and question sorts to find our topics and write our driving questions. We used  a modified version of think, puzzle, explore to decide on our knows and need to knows. Then, we began researching. We’re using Diigo to bookmark and annotate our resources, and we make our thinking visible about the resources by writing comments on them using the ladder of feedback. We also have specific roles for our annotating (PDF) thanks to my friend Bill Ferriter.

An Exciting Day

Peel the Fruit #photo365 #PDSmemToday, my class spent time working on our personal understanding maps and sharing some of our previous thinking (wondering) on the class map. The boys then jumped into their research and annotating roles. We had a limited amount of time, but the boys worked hard and had a few minutes to share with the class and our visitors what they learned from their personal research today. The boys then went back to their individual maps to peel the fruit of their own understanding. They also shared new understandings on the class map. (See above.) During the few remaining minutes of the class we reflected on our learning with the compass points routine and shared those reflections. Near the end of our class time, Mrs. Susan Droke (my administrator) and Dr. Ron Ritchhart (PZ researcher and author of Making Thinking Visible) visited my class, and they were able to see a bit of what we are doing. I felt honored and humbled to have Ron in my room. I’m not sure I can fully explain how much his work has affected mine.

After class I raced across campus to enjoy lunch and conversation with our visitors (completely forgetting about my lunch-time duties). I also participated in a brief panel discussion with several of my PDS colleagues before racing back to my room just before my next class arrived. I had given up my prep time to interact with our guests, and I still had several things to do before the boys arrived. Fast on my heels, another of our administrators arrived to let me know that Dr. Ritchhart was on his way to spend the afternoon in my room. “Yikes! An unexpected class visitor!”

The afternoon was fine. The boys in the afternoon class did a good job, but our time allotment was different so I modified some elements on the fly. I also felt a little scrambled because I had not taken down the work from the morning class and I had to carve out time for a Valentine’s Day celebration. Nevertheless, it was an exciting and productive day of learning, and I really enjoyed the interaction I had with Ron about the thinking and learning in my room. I’m also a little starstruck. While Dr. Ritchhart may not be famous by Hollywood standards, in D218 at PDS he’d receive a star on our walk of fame. I was so excited about the visit that after texting my wife, I had to contact my friend and visible thinking/inquiry pal Edna Sackson just to share the news.

Seeing, Thinking, & Wondering About Today


  • I saw Dr. Ritchhart observing everything happening in the room very closely.
  • I saw him pull out his iPad and record my giving instructions and facilitating the learning.
  • I observed Ron asking questions about Diigo and our annotating roles.
  • I observed him taking notes, snapping pictures, and writing down observation as the class progressed.
  • I noticed boys reading, researching, and tackling their selected roles.
  • I saw boys needing redirection back to the assigned tasks.
  • I watched two boys get frustrated with one another and my having to step in and referee.
  • I saw boys making great progress in their understanding.
  • I recognize some boys didn’t fully understand how to do their roles well.


  • I think my room was more chaotic than it would have been had I had just a few minutes more notice.
  • I think Ron is genuinely interested in our PBL and how I’m using PZ routines and protocols in designing of the learning.
  • I’m gathering that PZ hasn’t focused much on technology integration.
  • I think Ron showed interest in how and why I designed the learning space the way I did.
  • I think he appreciates my efforts to have a student-centered class with student-driven learning.
  • I think he appreciates my students’ thinking and questioning.
  • I realize some of my students need better scaffolding or modeling.


  • I wonder what he wrote in his notes and what he’d say if I asked him to do a ladder of feedback based on his visit.
  • I wonder specifically what his suggestions would be.
  • I’m curious if there will be opportunities for further interactions this week or in the future.
  • I’m curious about his own experiences teaching with project-based learning and inquiry.
  • I wonder if he noticed the freedom my students have to move.
  • I wonder why he chose to re-visit my room of all the classrooms in my building.
  • I wonder if he noticed how nervous I was. (I got over it.)
  • I’m curious if he noticed how much I modified things on the fly.
  • I wonder where this new connection could lead.

It was a full day. There is more to consider, but it’s late and I have several big days of learning ahead. Thank you, Edna, for the push to write about today. Hopefully, someone will find this post beneficial. I’ll do my best to get back on schedule soon. As always, I’d love to read your reaction and/or comments.

Creating Headlines and Capturing the Essence of Our Family Vacation

Family Vacation HeadlinesGood newspaper headlines capture the essence of an event or story. Great headlines draw a reader in and make him want to read more. While headlines don’t share everything in a story, good ones express the most important aspects of a plot. Often, the best headlines not only inform readers, but also entertain them.

One of my favorite thinking routines for helping students’ capture the heart of what they are reading is Headlines. This routine asks students to write newspaper-type headlines to summarize and express the crux of the matter at hand. We use this routine often in my 6th grade reading class, and I have found it a useful tool to help me formatively assess my students’ understanding.

In my class students create original headlines after each chapter they read in a text. We sometimes share these aloud in class. Often, we ask the writer the follow-up question: What makes you say that?” Occasionally, I ask students to write a headline for the days’ learning as their “ticket out the door.” We’ve also used the routine as a way for small groups to report to the class on the core their group’s discussion. It’s a useful tool, and I recommend you give it a try to make your students’ thinking visible. Students need practice summarizing and identifying main ideas, and headlines are a good way to practice

My school has eagerly embraced the Project Zero thinking routines, and my sons’ teachers use this routine in their classrooms, also. Creating headlines has spilled over from school into our home as well, and I love to hear my children ask each other for a headline after a family outing or event.

We are on spring break this week and have traveled to Copper Mountain to ski. At the end of the day Monday, as we were riding back from the slopes, my second grader Andrew chimed in with his “headline” for the day. We liked his so much that Eric, Sam, and I added ours as well. I shared them on Facebook as a way of keeping friends and family updated on our trip. The headlines really do capture the heart of our family vacation. So, we added our girls’ headlines and continued writing them at the end of each day. Here they are so far:

Monday, March 11

  • Philip: Where’s the Ibuprofen?
  • Eric:  Up Down Turns
  • Sam: First Day – A Success I Say
  • Andrew: Cold Cold Colorado

Tuesday, March 12

  • Philip: No Longer 25
  • Debbie: Not As Bad As Yesterday
  • Eric: The Journey to the Top Continues
  • Sam: Family Fun Skiing ‘Till the Day Is Done
  • Andrew: The Fast and the Furious
  • Evelyn: Getting to Ski with Dada

Wednesday, March 13

  • Philip: How Did They Grow Up So Fast?
  • Debbie: She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain
  • Eric: The World of Turns
  • Sam: Bittersweet
  • Andrew: Tree Trouble
  • Evelyn: Skiing Is Fun

Do you think you have a good idea of what our trip has been like? How might you use this with your family or your children? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about writing headlines as a method for capturing the heart of an event, idea, or concept.

The Threads That Run Through: Overview


Two summers ago I attended Project Zero Classroom (PZC) at Harvard Graduate School of Education through my school. At PZC, I learned more about the Teaching for Understanding framework and experienced visible thinking for the first time. One goal for that week was to develop a set of throughlines for my 6th grade reading class. Throughlines are overarching learning goals that describe the most important understandings a student should gain in a class. These aren’t just standards. Instead, throughlines go deeper into one’s beliefs and values about both the subject and the learning process. They should represent the crux of the learning in the class. Throughlines are best when worded as questions and not statements so that the student can take away his own understandings.

While at Harvard, I had the great fortune of being in a study group led by Diane Tabor (PDF), Susan Barahal, and Krista Pearson. Through conversations with them and other members of my study group, I was able to formulate the following four throughlines for my course:

  • How can we become more thoughtful readers and writers?
  • How do reading and writing help us connect with others and better understand the human experience?
  • How can reading and writing give a thoughtful, social voice?
  • How do reading and writing help us better understand and engage in our grade-level theme of conflict?

In all honestly, these throughlines are really BIG ideas, and I confess I didn’t do a great job of designing with all of them in mind last year. I have great excuses for this. After all, I was working at a new school, teaching a new age level, and tackling the subject for the first time. Nevertheless, my focus on the throughlines was minimal and hit-or-miss. This year I am attempting to be more intentional in my (backwards) instructional design.

Over my next few posts, I plan to reflect on these throughlines and how they connect with what we are doing in class. This is a work in progress and I would appreciate any questions, comments, or suggestions you have as I go. I want to refine and further develop these ideas, and I’d love to engage in conversation and inquiry about them. Thank you for reading. Please consider leaving a comment below.

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#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.

Goal: Better Teaching and Learning Via Thinking Routines

This year, my professional development goal is to incorporate the Visible Thinking Routines into my 6th grade reading class. In a year when all things are new, I want to capitalize on my experience and learning from Project Zero. I am convinced that incorporating the visible thinking routines will improve the learning experience for my students and help them develop into more thoughtful readers. My hope is that using the thinking routines will deepen class discussions, improve student understanding, and provide time for meaningful reflection.

In order to accomplish this goal, I plan to take the following steps:

  1. Read Ron Ritchhart, et al’s Making Thinking Visible (2011).
  2. Blog my metacognition marks and reflections on the text.
  3. Meet regularly with colleagues in a book club to discuss the text and our experiences incorporating the routines.
  4. Research and connect with other members of my PLN who are using visible thinking routines.
  5. Design and write lessons/units employing the routines.
  6. Document student thinking and the use of routines through sticky notes, photos, pencasts, student reflections, and blog posts.
  7. Blog reflections on my experiences using the routines in class.

When my blog posts, conversations, and lessons demonstrate greater proficiency using the visible thinking practices and student thinking shows a deeper understanding of read texts, I will consider my goal accomplished. I know that’s somewhat obtuse and not measurable, but I’m not trying to create data. I’m trying to become a better teacher–and no matter what politicians and reformers say, that isn’t easily quantifiable.

If you are interested in talking about the routines, in reading the MTV book together, or even collaborating on a project, let me know. As always, I am open to questions, comments, and feedback.

Becoming What They Need – My #TMKY11 Keynote

On Friday, I had the honor of presenting the afternoon keynote at TeachMeet Kentucky in Bowling Green. I don’t fancy myself much of a public speaker, but I do appreciate William, Allen, and Adam giving me the opportunity to share. I firmly believe the world has changed since I started teaching school in 1999, and I believe the role of the teacher is different from what it used to be. I’m not yet the teacher that my students need me to be, but I am working on it. The goal of my keynote was to share with other teachers how I’m trying to change and to invite them to join me on the journey.

I won’t replay my whole message here, bu I did want to share my slides. All images are licensed through Creative Commons and attributions are provided. I started with a visible thinking routine (Compass Points) that I learned at Project Zero just to give everyone a moment to digest the morning. Then, I shared a little of my story, my struggles, and how I’m working at “Becoming What They Need.” I’m not sure I’m doing it well, but I am trying to do it differently based on what I’m learning about, well, learning. Enjoy the slides; there are some great images. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks again to all the #TMKY11 folks. It was nice to meet ya’ll. I hope our paths cross again soon.

See/Think/Wonder – Mr. C.

While at Project Zero I was inspired by Lisa Verkerk, a 5th grade teacher from the International School of Amsterdam. (Lisa’s classroom and teaching play a prominent role in Ritchhart’s Making Thinking Visible.) I attended Lisa’s class “Developing the Disposition to Be Reflective.” Truthfully, the class wasn’t what I had expected when I enrolled. Nevertheless, Lisa modeled how she uses two specific thinking routines–See/Think/Wonder and Sentence/Phrase/Word (see Making Thinking Visible, 2011, pp. 207-213). Then, she talked about how she uses reflective art journals with her students to document their thinking. Instead of writing, students draw, paint, or color their reflections. Sometimes she asks them to explain their art in writing or simply to talk about their art and thinking. The artwork and testimonials were powerful stuff.

Lisa shared that she likes to show how much she values thinking by having her students do a See/Think/Wonder on the first day of school. I loved her idea. The former me always started school the “Wong Way” distributing my prepared syllabus and speaking to rules and procedures. Lisa’s idea resonated with me because it prioritized what I value (or want to value) most–THINKING! So, I stole Lisa’s idea, and guess what we did on the first day in sixth grade reading. That’s right! The students used the See/Think/Wonder routine to think about 6th grade, my classroom, reading class, and me.

When students entered the room, I gave each a small stack of sticky notes. I explained that instead of

 spending time talking about class rules and procedures we would spend the day investigating the classroom and thinking about what the year might be like. The students were to get out of their seats and explore the classroom making notes about the things they “see.” They were given access to whole room including community workspaces and closets. (I had placed specific items in the room that might shed light on me and my plans for the class. The only off-limit items were my wallet and my backpack, which held my phone and laptop.) During the “seeing” time I only observed them. I did not guide them or answer any of their questions. I only asked them to write “I see” statements about what they discovered.
  • I see a woman wearing a wedding dress.
  • I see a picture of Mr. Cummings wearing St. Louis Cardinals clothing and standing with four kids outside a baseball stadium.
  • I see desks pushed together in groups.  
  • I see two comfy couches sitting on some rugs next to the book shelves.
  • I see a stuffed Phineas, Ferb, and Perry the Platypus. 
  • I see “the language of thinking” words posted around the room.

After ten minutes of exploring, students returned to their seats. I instructed them to write “I think” statements based on the evidence they had collected while they were “seeing.”

  • I think Mr. Cummings is married to the redhead in the picture. 
  • I think Mr. Cummings is a Cardinals fan and has four kids. 
  • I think we will work in reading groups this year. 
  • I think the couches, rug, and bookshelves are designed to be a reading center. 
  • I think Mr. Cummings likes Phineas and Ferb
  • I think Mr. Cummings wants us to use our brains.
After the students had written their “I think” statements, I instructed them to extend their thinking by writing “I wonder” statements to correspond with their “seeing” and “thinking.”
  • I wonder how long Mr. Cummings has been married.
  • I wonder if Mr. Cummings took his family to a Cardinals game this summer.
  • I wonder what kinds of small group activities we will do this year.
  • I wonder how much time we’ll have to sit on the couches and read.
  • I wonder why Mr. Cummings is so fond of Phineas and Ferb.
  • I wonder if Mr Cummings entire room is designed to be a metaphor. (No lie. A student actually wrote that!)
Again, through this entire process all I did was observe the students thinking. Once they were finished, we debriefed. I facilitated as they shared what they saw, what they thought, and what they wondered. Several students helped me record what was said, and I was careful to neither confirm nor deny what was shared. However, I did respond to their comments by asking, “What makes you say that?” this forced them to support their ideas. It was a wonderful day in the classroom. At the end of the day, I reviewed and posted their thinking (sticky notes) and statements in my room. It was fascinating to read their thinking and learn from their perceptions. And, based on their energy and enthusiasm, I’m certain they left the classroom excited about our class and what future meetings would bring.

Now, I’m trying to decide how best to incorporate See/Think/Wonder into my reading instruction. I’m currently designing a unit for next trimester to help students investigate and make connections to the civil rights movement. I’m researching books, resources, events, and topics for my classes. I’d really like to use See/Think/Wonder to get a look at students’ understanding as we go. The idea is still percolating, but if you have any suggestions about resources or how to incorporate this thinking routine in the process, I’d appreciate the input. Also, what do you think about the See/Think/Wonder routine? Have you ever used it? If so, how? I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences.

Project Zero, Visible Thinking, and Developing Through Lines

One of the many things that drew me to PDS is the school’s commitment to ongoing professional development for teachers in both public and independent schools. A little over a year ago, with the help of a generous donation, the school founded the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence. But even before it started the Martin Institute,  PDS had committed to sending every one of its teachers to Harvard to attend Project Zero (PZ). When PDS offered me the sixth grade reading position and asked me to attend PZ this past summer, I seized the opportunity. The fact that my good friend Clif Mims, the Martin Institute’s executive director, was leading the cohort was a fortunate bonus, and during the last week of July, Clif and I, along with four other PDS teachers and five public school teachers, traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to rethink our teaching.

I knew little about the PZ program before boarding the plane for Cambridge. I’d been prepped by friends at PDS and by what I’d read online, but I didn’t really understand the program goals until I arrived on site. The design of the program includes time in large group instruction (keynotes), classroom instruction (mini-courses), and small group interaction (study groups). I’ll confess that before attending I totally dreaded having to attend the study group time (I needed an attitude adjustment), but it became my favorite part of the week. The typical morning started with a keynote, followed by a break, then a class. Lunches were on our own. We spent the entire afternoon in study groups. We registered ahead of time for our mini-courses, and PZ assigned us to study groups according to our professional teaching roles (age-level & subject content). Each keynote presented a idea about teaching and thinking; the mini-courses modeled its use, and the study groups allowed time for conversation, discussion, and reflection. The entire week was awesome.

Project Zero centers around these essential questions (“through lines”):

  • What are the components of an effective education for the world that students live in now and will live in 10, 20 or 50 years from now?
  • What is understanding and how does it develop?
  • What are the roles of reflection and assessment in student and teacher learning?
  • How can participants continue to share and pursue their understanding of Project Zero’s ideas with others after the institute? (via PZC)

I took pages and pages of notes and grabbed every handout and business card I could find. I also bought a ton of books as resources. To be honest, the learning was overwhelming. I had already begun the process of reinventing myself, but PZ kicked everything into overdrive, and I had to return home and start in-service almost immediately. Yikes! It’s now the middle of October, and I’m still sorting through all I took from the experience.

The PZ week culminates in a brief project presentation made in study groups. I had a tough time narrowing my project because I’d been blown away by so many new ideas, but two things surfaced that I want to share. First, I committed to learning more about the visible thinking routines and incorporating them into my classroom instruction. I have set this as my professional development goal for this school year. I have created a study group with some of my PDS colleagues to read and discuss Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church (CV .pdf), and Karin Morrison. I started using the routines on the first day of school, and appreciate the learning and discussions that have resulted with each use. (I plan to blog about a few of the experiences I’ve had.) Second, I am trying to design my class experiences using the Teaching for Understanding (TfU) framework from PZ. I’m still working my way through TfU, but thanks to my study group’s guidance I was able to identify the through lines I am using to design my sixth grade reading class. The through lines, or big questions, are the bones around which I am building the class learning experiences. I am also trying to consider my students’ interests as well. Here are the through lines as they currently stand:

  • How can we become more thoughtful readers and writers?
  • How do reading and writing help us connect with others and better understand the human experience?
  • How does reading and writing shape our voice and our actions?
  • How does reading and writing help us better understand and engage in our grade-level theme of conflict?

I’d love some feedback on these ideas. This is all new to me. Not only am I in a new position, new to PDS, and new to single-sex education, but also I’m new to sixth grade, new to thinking routines, new to “teaching for understanding,” and new to teaching reading outside the traditional English curriculum. It’s a lot of new. It’s a year of trial and error–of experimentation–of learning, and I love that I’m at a school that encourages me to do so. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions about what I’m doing, I’d love to hear from you.