Project-based Learning: Questions and Need-to-Knows

project-based learningA couple of months ago I had an email conversation with Mary Ann Stoll, an education and technology coordinator in Arizona. Mary Ann provides professional development for teachers on how to incorporate project-based learning. She had read through my “Diving into PBL” series and was interested in my reflections on using need-to-know lists to drive projects and in what scaffolding I used to help students with questioning. She wanted to know what I did differently the second year to improve our learning and research. Specifically, Mary Ann asked:

  • How do you guide the uninitiated student group to even start asking need-to-know questions? 
  • And then, how do you nudge them along until they’ve explored their knowledge, skill, and information gaps sufficiently?

Here’s a portion of my response to Mary Ann:

I always start from the first day using thinking routines to help my students learn to ask questions and show their thinking/understanding. Before we narrow our topic we use Question Starts to come up with list of questions we have about the larger concept. Our concept was human rights in the second year, and I started by simply introducing the Declaration of Human Rights, and discussing what we thought they meant. Then, the students generated open-ended questions they had about the individual rights. We use Question Sorts with those questions to eventually narrow our topic. Then, we drafted our driving question together. (I really had to steer them in this. In their previous PBL/design thinking challenges the question was not student-created.)

Once we had our driving question, we used Think-Puzzle-Explore to start developing our “Need to Knows.” The students worked in small groups to generate their T-P-Es, then we shared them to the larger group and wrote the best ones on our IdeaPaint wall. I transferred those to a Google Spreadsheet and shared it with the class giving certain students editing rights to help me track our learning on the spreadsheet. (This was a good idea, but I didn’t execute it well.) Those students could add new questions to the list, mark questions as answered, provide links to related articles, etc.

We used a Diigo group to curate our research, and I assigned students rotating roles (stolen from this Bill Ferriter handout) for what they had to do as we began reading and learning about our driving question. They had to bookmark, annotate (using a modified ladder of feedback), and share what they were reading and learning with the rest of the class in Diigo. Then, they had to perform their rotating roles to help us evaluate our research, clean it up, and make sure we were considering multiple perspectives. (I’m attaching a couple of images that hopefully will help this make sense.) We used SweetSearch as our starting place, and then I worked to find other resources to help them as we went.

Finally, I had students keep an individual Peel the Fruit Map that they updated every day so that I could track individual student’s understanding. We spent way more time on research the second year, and I felt my students had a much deeper understanding of the topic. That said, due to time restrictions, I finally just had to call an end to our research and move on to the how-do-we-share-what-we’ve-learned-and-do-something-about-this-issue phase.

The thinking routines and the social bookmarking roles really helped me provide the scaffolding my students and I needed. I had several teachers visit my classroom to watch how it worked, and I was really pleased with how the students responded. It was a HUGE improvement over year one.

Mary Ann found my response helpful but was still having difficulty visualizing the Peel the Fruit. She asked:

  • Do you happen to have a diagram of such a map?  Is it a general concept map or concentric circles?

I responded by sharing a few more ideas:

Understanding MapHere’s a PDF of a blank Understanding Map/Peel the Fruit and a better picture of a class one…During the last few minutes of class, I would stop the students and ask them to pull out their individual maps and add something to it—a question, an insight, a new discovery, etc. I’d collect them or walk around and glance over them to see where kids might be and who I might need to focus my attention towards. I also encouraged students to use post-its to add “their best thinking” to the class Understanding Map posted on the wall.

The map is set up to be a concept map, but we definitely felt the questions overlapped. I liked it because if a specific question wasn’t being addressed, I knew to push our thinking in that direction. For example, one class had a tough time considering other perspectives, so we took a day and did the Circle of Viewpoints and Step Inside routines.

Again, I mainly used the map to help me track our collective progress as well as see individual student’s progress. I found it a good accountability tool, too. (If someone’s map wasn’t filling up, I’d wonder how they were using their time.)

That’s what I did with my students, but I’d like to know what other teachers using project-based learning do. How do you teach students to ask good questions and develop their “need-to-knows”? How do you formatively assess individual and class understanding throughout the process? How do you monitor student research and know when it’s time to move on? If you have any ideas or experiences, I’d love to hear from you.

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.


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: 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?

Reflecting on Reflection – Compass Points #EduCon 2013

EduConConvoI’ve been home from EduCon 2.5 for over a week and a half. The weekend was an amazing learning experience, and several ideas from my jaunt to Philly continue to reverberate in my head. I’m still ruminating on all I heard and discussed, but I think it’s time to push some of my thoughts beyond my cranial matter.

Jennifer Orr‘s session on “Reflecting on Reflection” was a highlight of the weekend for me for several reasons. First, reflection has been key to any and all the professional growth I’ve experienced over the past few years. I’m a better teacher because I’ve started viewing my practice with a much more critical, reflective eye. I’m surrounded by people who ask good questions about what I do and why I do it, and the introspection has encouraged me to make seismic shifts in my philosophies and my practice. Second, I yearn for more time to write and reflect. I may seem like an introvert, but according to my Myers-Briggs scores I’m more “androverted” than introverted or extroverted. (I’m ever-so-slightly to the right of center on the extraversion/introversion scale.) As a teacher and father of 4, I spend a significant amount of time with people. Therefore, I long for more quiet time to be alone with my thoughts and balance all my daily extroverted activities. Finally, Jen Orr writes a fantastic blog, and I wanted to meet her and hear what she would share. She didn’t disappoint.

We had a great conversation about the importance of teachers reflecting on our practice, and we talked extensively about whether we are reflective, how we know if we are reflective, why we think reflection matters, and how we go about reflecting. You can view the shared Google doc notes if you are interested. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t finish our discussion, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since I returned.

One tool that I shared as a prompt for reflection is the visible thinking routine Compass Points. As a way of getting my thoughts out in a more formal way, here are my compass points on reflection:

  • E: What excites me about this idea? I am excited about the idea of being more reflective and more transparent about that reflection. It will benefit my students and my teaching if I am more intentional about finding time for reflection. I also like the idea of transparency because hopefully others can benefit from my reflections, but regardless, they will be captured in a way I can revsist them as needed. 
  • W: What do I find worrisome about this idea? I am worried about how I will carve out the time to write and share more often. What will I need to sacrifice in order to create the time for reflection. My schedule is full. I’m worried I won’t make the time I really need. I’m also worried about possible professional repercussions to my transparency. If I’m honest about my mistakes, failures, and short comings, will someone hold them against me as I try to learn, grow, and develop out loud. It feels risky.
  • N: What else do I need to know or find out about this idea or proposition? I’d like to know where other people carve out the time to write and reflect. Do they schedule time to write? In particular, I’d like to hear from busy parents in two career households about how they make the time to write and reflect. How does one manage it all? What tips would they give me?
  • S: What is my current stance or opinion on the idea? It’s worth the risks. If it will make me a better teacher, and I believe it will. then I must make it a priority. I’m going to carve out the time to write two posts each week in this space. I’m going to limit my writing time to something manageable and follow some of the tips I’ve heard recently from my friends Bill Ferriter and Mark Schaefer. I’m not promising my thinking will always be clear or that my writing will be clean, but it’s a learning process. I’m going to do my best to remember I don’t have to be perfect and I’m still learning.

See, Think, Wonder, 6th Grade Reading (2012)

This is a collaborative post co-written by Alice Parker (Yoda) and me. We are cross-posting it to both of our blogs–Through the Looking Glass and A Retrospective Saunter.

The beginning days of school should be magical ones. While students meet their new teachers, view the classroom design, and try to sort out what it is they may learn during the year, it is imperative for teachers to create a culture of thinking and learning, as well as a climate of group collaboration on those first days.

This year we, Alice and Philip, combined our magical forces to teach as a team during the first week of school. We decided to improve upon last year’s See, Think, Wonder — from my (Philip’s) first days of school lesson and extend the students’ thinking further while creating new classroom dynamics. As we had made significant changes to the physical styles of our classrooms during the summer, we knew that the students had much to observe.  Additionally, we, along with Julia (our Martin Institute Resident), flavored each classroom with many hints about us as people and teachers of reading.

To begin the lesson, we asked students to develop their own driving questions about the design of the 6th grade reading classes, the 6th grade reading teachers (including Julia), and 6th grade reading. Before starting, I (Alice) took a few minutes to review with the boys what makes a good question, focusing on the idea of writing deep, open-ended questions rather than questions that could be answered with one or two words. Our sixth grade guys easily recalled their past lessons on “Fat Questions” vs. “Skinny Questions.” We asked the students, “What do you want to know?” and allowed them a few minutes of think time. Then we asked them to write their questions on sticky notes. Using the group discussion connection rules as a platform, the students shared and posted their questions that would help focus their inquiry and drive the See, Think, and Wonder activity that would soon follow. The following are a few samples of the students’ “driving questions:”

  • “Ms. Parker, why do you have brains in your closet?”
  • “Why does Mr. Cummings like Phineas and Ferb so much?”
  • “How does all this stuff connect to reading?”
  • “How will the books we read connect to our lives?”
  • “Why do you both teach reading?”
  • “What do you do to prepare for the school year during the summer?”

After deciding “What Inquiring Minds Want to Know About 6th Grade Reading,” the students began exploring the rooms looking for answers to their driving questions. The students moved from room to room investigating the closets, checking out the bookshelves, noting posters on the walls, examining pictures on the shelves, and analyzing the arrangement of the rooms.  The only areas “off limits” were the teachers’ wallet, purses, and backpacks.

The students returned to the desks and began making lists in response to the prompt: “What did you see?” They recorded their lists on a sticky note. After a few minutes, the students shared their best discoveries. Then, they came up to the board and posted their “Sees” for the class. The following are a few of the things they noticed:

  • strategies for reading
  • Phineas, Ferb, and Perry
  • Flying Pigs
  • various types of books to read
  • places to go read
  • many types of paper
  • school supplies

Once the students had returned to their seats, we discussed what it means to make inferences and draw conclusions. “How does one make an inference?” The guys then responded to the prompt “What do you think?” making another list on a sticky note. After a few minutes they started sharing their thinking aloud. As teachers, we neither confirmed nor denied whether their conclusions were true. We only responded with an additional question asking “What makes you say that?” requiring the student to support his inference with evidence based on what he had seen. Here are some examples of our students “Think” statements:

  • “I think the books will somehow connect to what we are learning in other classes.”
  • “I think collaboration is important.”
  • “I think Ms. Parker’s room is wacky and random, but Mr. Cummings’ room is cool and organized.”
  • “I think there will be some freedom and independence in Mr. Cummings’ and Ms. Parker’s class.”
  • “I think our teachers are optimistic.”
  • “Mr. C and Ms. P like their students to use knowledge to build projects.

Each student shared his “think” statements by posting them on the board for the class to see.

Next, we asked the students to consider what additional questions they have now that they have explored the room. We explained that we wanted them to go deeper with their questioning. They responded by creating another list to answer the prompt: “What do you wonder?” Again, the following are a few samples of the responses they shared with the class:

  • “I wonder how old Mr. Cummings is.”
  • “I wonder if we’ll ever go outside to read.”
  • “I wonder what the differences between the two classes will be.
  • “I wonder why they are both so relaxed.”
  • “I wonder how will the fun affect our performance of reading in school and out.”
  • “I wonder how sixth grade reading will be different from fifth grade reading.”

At this point we were almost out of class time. As the students posted their “Wonder” statements on the board, we told them that their “ticket out” for the day was to come up with a “Headline” for the day’s class. We reminded them that good headlines capture the main idea and inform or entertain the audience. We stood at the door and gave high fives as the boys informed and entertained us with creative headlines, a few of which follow:

  • Class Time Thoughts
  • Classical Creativity
  • Pigs and a Platypus: The Perfect Combination
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Creativity
  • The Odyssey of Reading
  • Getting to Know Cat Daddy, Cat Momma, and Their Cribs
  • See, Think, and Wonder So Much to Ponder

We have found See, Think, Wonder to be a great way to introduce ourselves, the subject of 6th grade reading, and our individual classroom design to our students on the first day while engaging them in inquiry and encouraging them to think. If you have never tried See, Think, Wonder with your students you can find an explanation of the thinking routine here.

What is your reaction to our first day lesson? How do you engage your students’ minds on the first day of school? We’d love to hear from you.

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 Days 3 and 4: Coup d’etats, Negotiations, and Ideal Teachers

Day 3 of the World Peace Game in Memphis began with a coup d’etat. A Secretary of State decided that his country would be in a better position under his leadership rather than that of the current prime minister. The players rolled the die and the original regime fell. The former leader was exiled to another country and the new leader immediately began preparing to flex his newly acquired military muscle. When his country’s turn arrived, he announced he was ready to launch a nuclear attack. However, in his eagerness to take power, he forgot to secure the launch codes for his nuclear arsenal from the former leader who was now exiled, and had no way to accomplish his strategic plans. At the same time the idea of a staging a coup spread as cabinet members from other countries began plotting to overthrow their leadership as they grew frustrated that their voices and ideas weren’t being heard.

Over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, the students continued negotiations, teams realigned, leadership transitioned, and one group of deposed leaders joined forces to form a new nation and asked for UN recognition. (They made a brilliant move trading the desperately sought after launch codes for land of their own. A sense of altruism also began to emerge as players began making sacrificial moves in order to solve crises. By the end of yesterday, the player who initiated the initial coup d’etat realized he was what was standing in the way of world peace and abdicated his power. It was extraordinary to watch.

As adult observers, we looked for leadership (types and struggles), adjustment in collaboration, learning outcomes, and open space. I noticed how Mr. Hunter used his gift for listening and one-to-one communication to pull students aside and work with them as they struggled through the negotiation process. John plays to his strengths. Additionally, the amount of open space John gives his students is impressive. They make their own decisions. He lets them take risks. He later admitted that the students often make choices in the game that he doesn’t agree with, but he let’s them do it anyway. I noticed he doesn’t feel like he has to rescue them.

In the Master Class on Wednesday, we debriefed with John for a few minutes then spent time exploring our strengths, fears, and shoulds as teachers. (The shoulds are the internal and external expectations we have to cope with as teachers.) We identified them on sticky notes and posted them in the room for all to see. Then, we did a “gallery walk” so that we could read what everyone had written. We then discussed them as a group and spent some time categorizing what we listed. We also took time to watch the World Peace movie as not everyone in our cohort had seen it. (I’ve now seen it 4 times and discover something new each time I view it.) As homework, we received a visual to help us consider the philosophies, teacher roles, hard limits, and expectations that hold bearing on the game (teaching and learning). Our assignment was to think about our own teaching, consider the factors at work, and begin imagining what our own “game” might be.

After our short debriefing during Thursday’s class, John spent a few minutes talking with us about learning outcomes and assessment. I appreciate how he develops the assessment in partnership with the students and there is a major component of self-assessment and conferencing with each student. Then, we spent a few minutes imagining our “perfect teacher selves.” Then, we paired up and shared it with a partner and began asking each other hard questions about how we can grow into or become that ideal teacher. It was a deeply personal experience but one shared with a new, supportive colleague. Each pair then took turns introducing to the group the ideal version of their partner. The exercise was somewhat emotional but incredibly validating as we began the journey toward our ideals. The day ended with time spent relaxing and enjoying each other’s company.

#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.