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 Threads That Run Through: Understanding Conflict


At PDS we have outlined overarching themes for each grade level. First graders examine similarities and differences, and  second grade students survey connections. Third graders take a look at systems while fourth graders study innovation. In fifth grade students investigate perspectives, and in sixth grade we analyze conflict.

Conflict is at the center of every great story, both in fiction and life, and our most honorable heroes face animosity with courage, humility, and grace.

In our 6th grade reading class, we look at conflicts in literature and in our world. We begin the year reviewing the four different types of conflict we see in stories. A character may have a clash with another character (Man vs. Man), or he may struggle in his own heart or mind (Man vs. Self). Sometimes a protagonist contends with difficult elements in the environment (Man vs. Nature), or he may stand against his culture or community (Man vs. Society). As we read, we find different types of conflicts and mark them in our books discussing them as we go. We also try to make connections between the specific conflicts we see in the text and those we see in the world.

Our assigned summer book Surviving Hitler contains many examples of each type of conflict. Our boys understand and connect with the story and it serves as a fantastic introduction to World War II and our 6th grade social studies curriculum. In social studies our boys explore major global conflicts in the 20th century asking “Is war ever justified?” 

While reading I Am David in the first trimester, we look closely at the man vs. nature and man vs. self conflicts David faces escaping the Communist concentration camp and fleeing to Denmark. The boys further consider man vs. self conflicts as they create their “I Am” projects reflecting on their own internal conflicts.

In the second trimester, we consider man vs. man and man vs. society conflicts. As an introduction we look at primary documents examining pictures from the American Civil Rights movement. (Last year we visited the National Civil Rights Museum, but we were unable to do that this year because of renovations.) Then, we read The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. Most of the book focuses on man vs. man conflicts (Byron vs. everyone), but there are several man vs. society conflicts as well. After reading Watsons, we inquire into apartheid-era South Africa before reading Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’burg. With Jo’burg we focus mostly on man vs. society conflicts and investigate the lasting economic effects of apartheid.

The study of conflicts continues in the third trimester as the boys select from books that further our inquiry. During both the second and third trimesters, we also complete several small group projects. The projects serve dual purposes. First, they allow the students to show their understanding of the books in a more authentic–creative way. Second, it offers the boys the opportunity to work through real conflict. I rarely allow the boys to complete a project alone. They must work with a partner(s) on their project and hold one another accountable for the work as they go. I try not to interfere unless necessary. They must develop the ability to share ideas and collaborate. They must learn to give positive and negative feedback to their peers (via the Ladder of Feedback protocol).

Why do I want my students to understand conflict? I want my students to recognize different problems in the world and challenge the way things are. I hope that by better understanding conflict they will develop the character and determination needed to create change. Perhaps they will learn to engage problems and not flee from them, and hopefully my students will learn to persevere through challenges to grow deeper and become more capable leaders. William Ellery Channing said, “. . . difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict (“Self-Culture,” September 1838). I hope my students develop resolve.

I’m still learning the best way to scaffold and design the learning activities to help my students develop a deep understanding of conflict–and I’m still working on teaching ways to resolve conflict into the class, too. Assessment of student understanding is a weakness, and I need to make changes moving forward. However, I’m pleased with the progress of the class overall. I need to develop and refine things further, but we are on the right track.

This is the last post in a series of reflections on the throughlines for my 6th grade reading class. Check out the overview of the series or the posts on thoughtfulnessmaking connections, and student voice.

The Threads That Run Through: Student Voice

student voice

Returning full-time to the classroom last year, I longed to add more student voice to my class design. When I began teaching, I bought into the idea that as the teacher–the lone adult in the room–I was the one who best knew my students’ learning needs. I viewed educating as something we did to the students and not something students owned and shaped themselves. After all, others made most decisions connected to my formal education–even my early professional development. In all honesty I wasted most of those learning experiences. When finally I took ownership of my learning (in graduate school), my professional growth and development swelled. If my learning increased through my owning it, then I wanted the same for my students. In my class I want my students to know that they matter, that their opinions count, and that their insights call for attention from others. I want my students to have a voice.

One way, Alice and I engage student voice in the 6th grade reading class is by having students design our class bookmark. For years, Alice has provided the boys a bookmark as a tool to remind the boys of metacognitive strategies to use while reading. Last year, in oder to allow for more student voice, Alice and I asked the boys to design the class bookmark based on what they know a thoughtful reader does. The result thrilled us.

In addition to designing the bookmark, I engage student voice by giving students choices when possible. While our school requires summer reading, I let students read whatever they like for two of the three required books. Additionally, I introduced book clubs, my rethinking of literature circles, last year encouraging the boys to choose the books, roles, and projects and empowering them to set the schedule and assignments for their clubs. The boys loved the book clubs, and seeing several boys develop as leaders inspired me as well. I’m looking forward to giving further control of the book clubs to the students this spring.

Student voice plays a role not only in our reading but also in our writing. One way students voice their opinions is through Broken Spines, our book review wiki. Students can write a book review for the wiki any time they finish a book. All my students share reviews, but several students also serve as wiki managers, too. As I reflected on in the thoughtfulness post, I’m still working to include blogging in the class design. Hopefully, students blogs will help further develop student voice in my class and give them voice beyond our classroom as well.

Currently, we are attempting project-based learning having just finished reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 and Journey to Jo’burg. Through brainstorming and class discussions, my four classes have each chosen a different issue of injustice that they are researching. Their goal is to make a difference related to the issue. They selected some big problems–racism, sweat shops, chronic unemployment, and poverty/homelessness. They have chosen both the issues and the projects they will complete. It’s a messy process (and one I plan to write about later), but their level of engagement and the ownership they are taking for the process is extraordinary.

I recognize I still have room for growth in embracing and developing student voice in my class, but I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished over the past two years. What do you think about the steps I’ve taken? What do you do to embrace and develop student voice in your classroom? What questions or feedback do you have about these ideas?

This is the fourth post in a series of reflections on the throughlines for my 6th grade reading class. Check out the overview of the series or the posts on thoughtfulness and making connections.

The Threads That Run Through: Making Connections

making connections texts human experienceAn important skill readers use to comprehend a text is to make personal connections to it by accessing their own background knowledge. We link what we are reading to what we already know by making text-to-self, text-to-text (text-to-media), and text-to-world connections.  As I design my 6th grade reading class, I want my students to connect not only to the books we read but also to other people and their experiences. I want them to recognize that reading and writing help us develop empathy for others. Reading and writing deepen our understanding of experiences we might not personally have. When we read and write, we are not only making connections with the text but also making connections to people’s experiences.

To help my students connect with the texts and with the lives of people from different backgrounds I have selected books from around the world that address global issues. We begin making these connections when the boys read the assigned summer text: Andrea Warren’s Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. Surviving Hitler tells the true story of Jack Mandelbaum, a 12-year-old boy taken prisoner during the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.  The story serves as an excellent introduction to the Holocaust and the boys really connect with Jack. The book ties in nicely with the theme of conflict studied in our sixth grade social studies classes.

In the first trimester of the school year, the boys read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars in small group with Mrs. Parker and Anne Holm’s I Am David in small group with me. The characters in these books are easily accessible to 6th graders and the boys make connections with many of the experiences in the stories. After reading each book the boys complete a project where they make stronger, personal connections with the book.  In my class we focus on making strong text-to-self connections while reading I Am David, and our work culminates in an “I Am” project where the boys create a 3-D metaphorical monument that represents their connections to the experiences of David.

For the second trimester all the boys return to my room for core group reading. (Alice teaches small group reading with fifth grade.) We focus our study on human rights reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis and making connections to the South African apartheid novel Journey to Jo’burg by Beverley Naidoo. With these books we focus on making strong text-to-text connections between, and the boys show an understanding of how global the problems of racism and discrimination are. My students are privileged people, but I’m impressed with how deeply they connect to the struggles of the characters in our books. They also have a strong sense of justice and develop feelings of empathy for those facing injustice. Their compassion is inspiring. Currently, the boys are designing their own project-based learning as they move from connecting with someone’s experience to taking action to help that person in need.

During the last trimester my students will have more choice over what they read and how they approach each book. I have selected several works I think the guys will enjoy including: The Giver by Lois Lowry, Nothing But the Truth by Avi, Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen, and When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt. (I’m considering adding a few others so please let me know if you have suggestions.) After I introduce each book, the boys will select which book they want to read and organize a “book club” that they will plan and lead. I’ll occasionally sit in on face-to-face book club meetings as a visitor, but also I’ll primarily keep up with their discussions through the Livescribe pencasts they’ll share in Edmodo as they go. A primary goal of their book club discussions will be making text-to-world connections as they read and discuss the novels.

The class design helps students connect to the experiences of others. However, the course needs further development in actually connecting with people beyond our classroom. In the future, I want to use Skype, the Global Read Aloud, and blogging as ways to connect with people around the world. Instead of reading about apartheid-era South Africa, I’d like my students to connect with South Africans living in and striving to overcome the prolonged effects of apartheid. My hope is that someday my students will not only be making connections to our books, but they’ll be making life-changing connections with others.

What’s your opinion on these ideas? What are some more ways that I can help my students better connect with others and better understand the human experience?

This is the third post in a series of reflections on the throughlines for my 6th grade reading class. If interested, you might want to read the overview or my post on thoughtfulness.

The Threads That Run Through: Thoughtfulness

reading metacognition thoughtfulness

This is the second post in a series of reflections on my class throughlines. You can read the first post and general overview of the throughlines here.

At PDS reading is a core class all by itself. Strong reading skills are key to becoming an independent learner and thinker. Therefore, our students have a separate reading class as well as a regular English class focused on language arts.

How can we become more thoughtful readers and writers?

Prior to my current position, most of my teaching had been in traditional English classes. I had taken classes on teaching reading, but it had never been my primary focus. I wasn’t certain how to teach 6th grade reading. Fortunately, at PDS my classroom is next door to Alice Parker’s room, and Alice is an amazing and experienced reading teacher. Through conversations with Alice, I narrowed the focus of my class. By observing Alice teaching, I discovered practical ways to help my students develop into more  critical and creative thinkers. I want my students to think well, and I want them to become better thinkers through awareness of their thought processes and through reflection on that thinking. In other words, much of my class focuses on students’ reading metacognition.

Alice and I teach the first trimester of 6th grade reading together. We take the 6th grade classes and divide each into two small groups. Alice teaches one small group while I teach the other. Her group reads a different book than my group, and after six weeks the students switch teachers. As they read, students mark their books using metacognition strategies they have previously learned from Alice in the 5th grade. (She teaches small group reading to fifth graders, too.) During one of the first activities Alice and I ask our 6th graders, “What does a thoughtful reader look like?” Then, we break the students into collaborative teams to brainstorm responses to the question. Their answers show their general understanding of the need for reading metacognition.

In addition to having my students document their thinking, I also directly instruct my students in certain thinking processes. For example, I teach my students how to brainstorm effectively. They know “the guidelines for brainstorming,” and they know kinesthetic movements that help them remember each guideline. I also teach them to use the Ladder of Feedback protocol when making observations in the classroom, but I confess I need to revisit the protocol with my students more often.

Not only do I have my students check their reading metacognition and teach them specific thinking processes, but also I use thinking routines in class instruction to make students’ thinking visible. I’ve written before about using See Think Wonder on the first day of class, but I also use it occasionally when introducing a new concept or theme. In addition to See Think Wonder, so far I’ve incorporated the following thinking routines into my reading instruction over the past two years:

When using these routines, my student write down and share their thinking with the class so that we can talk about it. I try to allow time for student reflection after each thinking routine, but I admit it’s an area where I need to improve. When I first identified the throughlines, I imagined my students blogging regularly but that hasn’t materialized. We  write in our “thinking books” often, and we occasionally share our writing, but I’m not satisfied with the amount of writing we do nor with our lack of an authentic audience.

I want my students to write, but I haven’t found the balance between reading and writing in the class yet. Thoughtful readers should also be thoughtful writers, but I’m still trying to figure out the writing aspect of it. I’m also wondering if I need to expand my definition of writing. I tend to think of writing in terms of traditional text or manuscript. Should I revise it to include other forms of creative expression (art, film, music, speech, or physical expression)?

Overall, I believe I’m making progress in designing toward the How can we become more thoughtful readers and writers? throughline, but I can improve. I want us to write more. Specifically, I want us to write for a more authentic audience. I want my students to blog. I also want to integrate more fine arts and more reflection into the class.

What do you think? Does any of this make sense? What questions do you have about this thread or how it’s woven into the class?

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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