Creating Opportunities for Students to Think

The other week I shared some of the wonderful thoughts and ideas of Aeriale Johnson‘s often-labeled-as-struggling second-graders as part of a case I hoped to make for not underestimating children’s intellect and for focusing less on teaching academic skills and more on nurturing students’ intellectual lives. But I’m aware that post may have raised the question of how, exactly, do we nurture and support our students’ intellectual lives?

The British writer and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell had this to say about  about that very question. I love his ideas, but he doesn’t really delve into the instructional role that teachers can play—that is, how can we help students become “readers and thinkers of significant thoughts right from the beginning”?

My hunch is that many of you have discovered ways of doing just that. But for me, it almost always involves making a shift from teaching a lesson with an explicit teaching point and teacher modeling to creating some sort of opportunity for kids to start thinking right from the get-go.

In Dynamic Teaching for Deeper ReadingI decided not to use the word lesson when talking about instruction, but instead focused chapters around specific kinds of opportunities teachers could create for kids to think, such as:

  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO FIGURE OUT THE BASICS
  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO INTERPRET
  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO CONSIDER IDEAS AND OPINIONS IN NONFICTION
  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO SOLVE PROBLEMS IN THEIR INDEPENDENT READING BOOKS

Many of these opportunities involve kids using a Know/Wonder chart, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I first shared in What Readers Really DoNot to be confused with a KWL (What I Know/What I Want to Know/What I Learned) chart, which asks students to access what’s already in their heads about a topic, consider what they’d like to know about that topic, then share what they learned about it from a text, a Know/Wonder chart invites kids to think about what they know or have figured out in a text and what they wonder about what that (which could be something that confused them or that made them curious).

You can see examples of kids’ thinking using Know/Wonder charts in Interpreting Interpretation: A Look at an Overlooked Word and When Is a Scaffold Not a Scaffold? But there are other kinds of opportunities I try to create for kids to think. I often invite them to compare and contrast in ways that support discovery and thinking, whether it’s looking at two different biographies of the same person to realize that biographers aren’t just sharing facts, they’re interpreting the life of their subject, or comparing different books by the same author to discover patterns, recurring themes and an author’s obsessions. And recently (with thanks & hopefully forgiveness from Georgia for the Poem A I drafted), I shared this chart with a class of third graders during their poetry unit to get them thinking about how they might revise their poems—and amazingly, without me saying a word, they started talking about nouns and verbs!

What I think is important about all these examples is that in each case I could have delivered an explicit teaching point and modeled my own thinking through a think aloud before releasing responsibility to the students. But instead I did what Eleanor Duckworth writes about in both her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas and her essay in The New Educator, “Helping Students Get to Where Ideas Can Find Them“: I “put the learners in direct contact with the subject matter”(which can be a text, a math problem, a primary source document, etc.), without the need for me, as the teacher, to be an intermediary.

When we do this, Duckworth says, we help “students get their minds, their awareness, and their feelings so active and thoughtful and informed that they are in a place where connections, understandings and new ideas can find them.” On the other hand, she writes, “Contributing our own ideas and thoughts about subject matter almost always short-circuits the students’ thoughts and decreases their interest.” So if we truly want students to think and are serious about nurturing their intellectual lives, perhaps we need to create opportunities that allows students to explore—and even struggle with—subject matter before we step in and teach.

P.S. Thursday was the day that, for better or worse, I really started feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m not sick, thank heaven, but between empty subway cars and bare shelves at supermarkets and drugstores, it’s clear that I have to change how I live, especially when it comes to public transportation and socializing. I’m imagining that many of you are wrestling with the impact of all this as well—along with the work and financial implications if you or your children’s schools are being closed. And that made me wonder if this is really what I should be writing about now, as the world goes strangely silent. But then I caught this Facebook post from Elllin Keene:

Thank you, Ellin for reminding me how lucky we are to spend time with children and what a privilege it is, even now, to spend our days thinking about how to engage and empower them.

What I Did on My Snow Day: A Slice of Life

I’m not sure who loves snow days more, teachers or kids. But I do know that when I learned that schools in New York City and New Jersey would be closed on Tuesday for what was predicted to be a monster blizzard, I felt a huge sense of relief. I’d been ready for my work on Tuesday, but I hadn’t had time to wrap my mind about my work for Wednesday, when I’d be back in a middle school whose teachers were struggling to shift from a curriculum of whole class novels to reading workshop. Now I’d have time to plan.

Like many districts, this one began their initiative to implement workshop in their lower schools, where, over the years, it took root. It’s even been embraced by the 6th grade teachers, who’d noticed that their incoming students were arriving with a much greater sense of agency and identity as readers than they used to. But the 7th grade teachers Classic Middle School Booksweren’t so sure. They were deeply attached to the whole class novels they’d been teaching (sometimes for years), and they truly believed that that approach best prepared their students for high school. To me, this meant that they took their jobs seriously and wanted to do right by their students—and I used that as a place to start.

Over several visits, I’d shown them Penny Kittle’s videos where many of her students confess that they’d basically all but stopped reading in middle school. And I’d shared some from their own district’s lower schools that captured local fourth and fifth graders engaged in book club discussions. I’d demonstrated lessons; given workshop on books talks and interactive read alouds; created charts and handouts like the one below, and introduced them to blogs by middle school teachers, like Tara Smith’s and Pernille Ripp’s. But while they were intrigued enough to institute ten minutes of independent reading in their classrooms several times a week, they still struggled letting go of the whole class texts.

Read Alouds vs. Whole Class Novels 2

So I decided to take a new tact. For this visit, I’d committed myself to taking whatever whole-class-book lesson the host teacher had planned and show them how to shift that to a workshop approach by unpacking my thinking. So once I was fully caffeinated and had helped David shovel our sidewalk and stoop, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down at my desk to take another look at the email the teacher had sent.

The Miracle Worker PlaybillHer plan was to start “The Miracle Worker,” William Gibson’s play about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, on Wednesday, using “opening activities focused on understanding Gibson’s use of lighting and stage directions to assist readers in understanding the play.” I’d never read “The Miracle Worker,” nor helped a teacher teach a play in middle school before—and I confess I felt some serious regret about what I’d agreed to take on. But sipping my tea, I knew my first job was to think about how to move this lesson away from this play, this lighting and this staging to ways of thinking about how staging and lighting inform the meaning of plays in general so the teaching could be transferred and applied from one text to another.

What I needed for that was a mentor text to help me understand how stage directions conveyed meaning and what challenges—or problems—they posed for readers. So I turned to Google to help me find plays that might be engaging to middle schoolers and had meaning-full stage directions. And I came up with a small trove of treasures. Here, for instance, are the opening stage directions for Herb Gardner’s wonderful play “A Thousand Clowns,” about an eccentric comedy writer who must change his ways in order not to lose custody of his 12-year-old nephew:

One thing I immediately recognized  was how much a reader would need to visualize to make sense of this. But more than that, readers also had to think about the significance of all these details and what they might, both literally and figuratively, suggest about what might unfold. That is, readers not only have to picture Nick sitting my himself in the dark, surrounded by a tsunami of disorder, with his face lit by the screen of a TV that the audience can hear but not see, but consider what the playwright might be trying to convey through all those details. And that requires a lot of thinkingfrom inferring that, at 8:30 on a Monday morning, Nick should be in school to wondering whether the position of the TV, the closed venetian blinds and the scattered, hazy light suggest there’s more that the characters—and us, as readers—can’t see.

All this seemed exciting to me, but also potentially hard. How might I introduce this interpretive thinking to the 7th graders? I could, of course, model a think aloud, but as Dorothy and I wrote in What Readers Really Do, the problem with think alouds is that, while they’re intended to show students how to think, what students often take away is what to think. Instead, as I wrote in my look at dynamic teaching, I wanted to design an opportunity for students to engage in that thinking on their own.

So I made myself another cup of tea and stood by the window, watching the snow silently blanket the street. And suddenly I had what David calls a “brain fart.” What if I began by having students interpret Edward Hopper paintings, which suggest stories in interior spaces that almost feel like stage sets, and then moved from those to “A Thousand Clowns”? With renewed excitement, I headed back to my desk, where once gain Google helped me find images, which seemed perfect for the kind of interpretive thinking I wanted the kids to try on:

Hopper Movie Theater

Hopper Nighthawks

Hooper room-in-new-york

With a text now chosen and a basic plan in mind, I still had to consider the logistics: Should I do the first painting with the whole class then break them into smaller groups to interpret different painting? Would the kids need some kind of protocol or lenses for looking at the paintings? Should I follow the same structure with the stage directions, first look at “A Thousand Clowns” together, then let groups work collaborative on different openings that they then could read in book clubs?

As I pondered these decisions, an email notice popped up on my screen. I had a new message from the middle school. Turns out there was so much snow the school couldn’t open on Wednesday unless the roads, sidewalks and parking lots could be cleared. And even if that happened, there’d be a delayed opening, which meant I’d need to reschedule the day. Given that I couldn’t do that until much later in April, you could say all that work was for naught. But I have to say I found the thinking as exhilarating as The Snowy Day‘s Peter found playing outside in the snow. I didn’t make snow angels, build snowmen or hurl myself down a hill on a sled. But I did hurl myself down a thrilling ride of thought, which led to making something. And who knows? Maybe one of you out there will do something with this!

The Snowy Day sledding