Steering the Ship: More Teaching Moves to Support Critical Thinking & Meaning Making

Steering wheel of the ship

Last post I looked at what can happen when we dig into the huh‘s and hmm‘s students make as they read. I like to think of these as authentic reading responses, which, if we pay attention to them, can open the door to deeper thinking. Like giggles, groans, ah‘s and oh‘s, these are all reactions to something students have read or heard in a text, and as such they’re the outward manifestation of something going on in students’ heads, whether it’s insight, disappointment or confusion.

Probing these responses is one of the teaching moves I always keep in my toolbox, knowing that it serves several purposes. For one, it acknowledges students’ responses as being valuable, which, in turn, conveys other messages to children: that we care about their ????????????????????????????????????thinking, not just their answers, and that it’s okay to be unsure or tentative because that’s where learning starts. It also gives students an opportunity to practice attaching more language to fledgling thoughts in a way that makes visible the messy way we actually develop ideas as well as the chance to orally practice elaborating and explaining, which almost every students needs. And the worst that can happen when we probe these responses is that a student says, “I don’t know,” which provides us with another opportunity for normalizing not knowing as a natural part of the learning process and either opening the response up for discussion or reframing it as an inquiry, such as, “Why did that line, scene or sentence give us pause?”

The other move I shared last week was one that helped students move away from what, with thanks to fellow blogger Steve Peterson, I’ve started calling text-to-self conclusions. These are often the first ideas students gravitate to in order to answer a question or explain something they’ve noticed. And while they may cite a detail from the text (as in last week’s example), these conclusions are mostly based on something outside the text, as students draw from their background knowledge or their own experience to make sense of something.

frustrated woman with hands in hair screaming against chalkboardThese text-to-self conclusions are also the ones that we, as teachers, can feel frustrated with because they’ve missed the mark. And they can spark those “Why can’t they (fill in the blank)?” questions and sometimes even hair pulling. But we have some choices here about what teaching moves to make, especially if we’re trying to promote thinking, not fish for a pre-determined answer. Here, for example, is what happened in a seventh grade room I was recently in, where the teachers had set up a gallery walk of images to kick off a unit that would explore how class and economic differences can lead to conflict and change.

As the students made their way around the room in small groups, they were asked to discuss and jot down what they thought were the important details and from that to consider what connected the images in order to make a text-based prediction about the unit’s theme. The students would be reading Katherine Paterson‘s Lyddie as an anchor text, which recounts the story of a young girl whose desperate financial circumstances lead her to work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800’s, and so there were a few images, like this one, depicting children in factories:

Child Working in Factory

But there were also other images like these, in which no children or factories were in sight:

Labor Conflict Image 2


Despite this, every student in the room came to the same conclusion. They all recalled having read the book Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo in sixth grade, which is a fictionalized account of a Pakistani boy who was sold as a child into a life of bonded labor. And making that text-to-self connection, they concluded that factories were the most important detail and the unit was about child labor.

While the teachers were thrilled that the students remembered a book they had read last year, they were disappointed with their conclusions. They’d asked the students, in effect, to notice patterns, which can be a powerful and accessible way to get students to think more deeply. But in this case, rather than stretching their thinking, the students here focused on selective details that fit into what they already knew, which precluded any new discoveries—and any real critical thinking.

why_dont_students_like_school1In a great article called “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?”, Daniel T. Willingham, the cognitive scientist and author of books such as Why Don’t Students Like School, looks at a term that’s often bandied about in order to more clearly define it. According to him, critical thinking comprises three types of thinking—reasoning, making judgements, and problem solving—which, to truly be critical, must  involve “three key features: effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction.” And he unpacks each of these feature as follows.

Critical thinking is effective, he says, because,

“it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic . . . and so on.”

It’s novel because, “you don’t simply remember a solution or a situation that is similar enough to guide you.” And it’s self-directed in the sense that,

“the thinker must be calling the shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took.”

If we embrace this definition, we have to say that the students weren’t thinking critically. They’d jumped to a conclusion without considering all the evidence by remembering a similar situation (or, in this case, a book). And they wouldn’t be critically thinking either if we prompted them with some text-dependent questions—such as “What’s the setting of the second image?”—that forced them to notice something they hadn’t that we’d deemed important.

We could, though, ask more open-ended questions of the sort I did last week, to invite the students to take in more before coming to a conclusion. And these could take a variety of forms, such as:

  • Do you notice any details that don’t fit the pattern you’ve seen?
  • Are there other ways in which the images might be connected, or other patterns you notice?
  • Do you think there are any differences or similarities in the patterns you’ve noticed—i.e., are there patterns within the patterns?
  • Could you revise your ideas in a way that take these new noticings into account?

These questions steered these seventh graders back to look more closely at the images and to question and bat around each other’s ideas more. That, in turn, led them to steer away from their original conclusion to ideas that had to do with human rights and fairness, especially among groups of people, like children, women and African-Americans, who, they thought, might not have much power. And that made us teachers smile.

I’ll share a few more teaching moves with a printed text another time. But if you’ve got a few moves up your sleeve that help students become critical thinkers and meaning makers, too, please feel free to share them. And in the meantime, tuck these in your sleeve.

Ace under your sleeve

Over the River & Through the Woods: Good Tidings (and an Invite) for the Holidays


I decided to celebrate the holidays this year by writing a post that was inspired by two seemingly random but serendipitous events. The first was my experience at NCTE where it was so invigorating to hear educators share so many innovative and meaningful ways for students to not only embrace reading and reading but to truly own their learning. And several of the ones I found most compelling all connected literacy to the visual arts.

Should Would Could DidGiven the responses to the two posts I wrote and the links to others that can be found at the #NCTE13 Roundup on Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn’s blog “A Year of Reading,” I think many people felt the same. And that experience was still vividly in my mind as, shortly after Thanksgiving, I started noticing tweets from a group of great educators loosely connected through the Nerdy Book Club, twitter and the blogosphere. Using the hashtag #nerdlution, each person committed to doing something they’d wanted to do for a while for the next fifty days, out of the belief that making a pledge with others would keep them on track. Many choose to write every day, while others vowed to exercise more. And reading the tweets, I found myself intrigued—and simultaneously terrified—at the idea of adding one more thing to my already busy life.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I needed to write any more than I’m currently doing, and while I could always exercise more, I’m pretty good at getting on a bike (outside as long as it’s at least 50 and inside, watching old Project Runways from a stationary bike, when it’s colder). But it occurred to me that there was something I’d been wanting to add to my life for a while but couldn’t ever seem to find the time for: drawing.

Of course, the prospect of trying to find time to draw each day for fifty days seemed to much. But with all the inspiring visual work I saw at NCTE—and all the inspiring #nerdlution tweets from people doing what they thought they couldn’t do—I decided to give myself a You're-Invited-3challenge. I would try to follow the instructions that Linda Rief gave her students for the magnificent heart book project she shared at NCTE: to find a poem that resonated for me and write it out in my own hand, then illustrate it and do a little research to find out what the poet has to say about reading or writing. And I’d like to challenge (or more politely invite) anyone out there who’s been feeling an urge to reconnect with poetry, do something creative, or learn by doing an assignment you’re considering for your own students to share a poem that speaks to your heart, following Linda’s steps. If you have a blog, you can post it there with a link back here. And if you’re blog-less, you can attach the poem, an illustration and any wise words you find from the poet in an email and send it to me at, and I’ll share it here. And, who knows, maybe we’ll even start a new holiday tradition—and give birth to a hashtag (#heartpoems anyone?)!

In the meantime, though, enjoy the holidays, both the known and the unknown, the clarity and the confusion. And follow these words of Wendell Berry, the poet I did my research on, which seem particularly apt for the season:

“Be joyful because it is humanly possible.”

The Real Work2

Heart Collage 2

© Vicki Vinton 2013 “The Real Work” Heart Collage,

See you next year when the journey of the real work carries on!

Holding On & Letting Go: Some Last Thoughts from NCTE


My last post shared some words and ideas from two of the sessions I attended at this year’s NCTE convention, both of which powerfully demonstrated the deep and insightful work students can do if they’re given enough space and time. Those students also benefited from teachers who trusted them enough to let go, which isn’t always easy. We can fear, for instance, that if we let go we’ll lose control of the room. We can fear that students won’t learn what they need to, which will reflect on us badly. Or we can fear that if we veer away from our lesson plans or scripts, students may start to ask us questions we don’t have the answers for, which will reveal perhaps our other deepest fear—that we don’t always know enough.

Dropping the MaskThose fears and what can happen when we move beyond them were explored in a session called “Reading the Visual and Visualizing the Reading” that I also wanted to share because the ideas were simply too inspiring not to spread around. Chaired by Tom Newkirk and presented by a dynamite trio all connected to the Learning Through Teaching program in New Hampshire, Louise Wrobleski, Tomasen Carey and Terry Moher, the session kicked off with a quote from yours truly and another from Tom Newkirk who, in an article called “Looking for Trouble: A Way to Unmask Our Readings,” suggests that

“‘opening up’ the discourse to allow for the expression of confusion and difficulty . . . allows us all, teachers and students, to drop the masks that can inhibit learning. We can all act as the fallible, sometimes confused, sometimes puzzled readers that we are. We can reveal ourselves as learners, not always the most graceful of positions.”

To help us feel the power of those words, Louise invited us to look at some of the iconic photographs she’s been sharing with students, such as the one below, and to consider the same three questions that she asks students to ponder: What does it say? What does it mean? and What does it matter?


Those simple questions compelled us to look closely, ‘reading’ the details of the picture as closely as we want students to read the details of a text, and ‘suspending conclusions’, as John Dewey advises in order to share the different things we noticed and consider what they might mean.

Then Tomasen put us all in that ‘not always graceful position’ of learners by asking us to choose one of the images of faces she’d placed on each table and add to the drawing, which led many in the audience to say that the didn’t know how to draw. But draw we did, with most of adding a body and clothing to the head that seemed in keeping with the kind of person we imagined that face to be.

Vicki at NCTE

Next she shared some images from a blog post called “Collaborating with a 4-year Old,” which was written by an illustrator whose daughter commandeered her new sketchbook, much to the mother’s chagrin, to ‘finish’ the drawings she’d started:

Dragon Girl illustrationBeaver Astronauts

After laughing at the mother’s story and marveling at the drawings, Tomasen asked us to turn our own drawing over, where we found the same disembodied face, and to try to add to it again. With no more than that we all started to draw, this time capturing who we thought the person was in much more creative ways than before as we instinctively moved from the literal to the figurative. And we picked up our pens with none of the hesitation or protest we voiced before, drawing the way the mother described her daughter doing: “insistent and confident that she would of course improve any illustration I might have done.”

This was possible, I believe, because we used the blog post drawings as a mentor text—a text that opened up what had been until then unimagined possibilities of how we could convey our thinking. Terry then took this one step further when she shared what happened when she used a visual mentor texts to a room of high school students who were reading The Scarlet Letter, a text that many students I know have considered to be the bane of their existence.

Having snagged a used class set of the book, Terry invited her students to mark up the text in any way they wanted, and rather than holding on to any of the practices we use to hold students accountable for reading—entrance slips, chapter summaries, pop quizzes—she gave them the option to not read sections provided they explained why in writing.

Moby-Dick in Pictures CoverAll by themselves, these choices helped her students read more than they otherwise might have, but things got even more interesting when she brought in what would be their mentor text, Moby-Dick in Pictures by the self-taught artist Matt Kish, which I bought as soon as I got home. As Kish explains in the book’s forward, Moby-Dick had fascinated him since he first saw the movie with Gregory Peck, and also being obsessed with images, he decided to create an image for a quote from each and every page of the book. And as you can see from the images below, he used a wide range of materials and techniques to capture what he describes in his forward as his desire and goal: “to make a version of Moby-Dick that looks like how I see it.”

"Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." (p. 48)

“Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” (p. 48)
From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

“For when three days flow together in one continuous intense pursuit; be sure the first is the morning, the second the noon, and the third the evening and the end of that thing – be the end what it may.” (p. 544) From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

With this text as a mentor, Terry asked her students to choose one quote from each chapter of the book and create an image for it. And just as happened with us in the room completing the drawings of those heads, the students images started out quite literal—think cut out pictures of Demi Moore in a white puritan cap—before they became more figurative. What was fascinating, though, was that, as some students ventured beyond the literal, the whole class decided that their pictures should attempt to capture something deeper about the characters’ psyche. And that class-wide decision yielded images like these, which I think are simply amazing:

Scarlet Letter 3Scarlet Letter 1Scarlet Letter 2

Terry, herself, was surprised by the depth of the students’ thinking and how, once she’d gotten them started, they took full ownership of the book, the assignments and the whole process. And that made me think that something Tom Romano had said in his poetry session—”No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”—applies to teachers and students as well: If there’s no surprise for the teachers, there can be no surprise for the students. Of course that means that we need to be willing to live with uncertainty—or as Cynthia Merrill, another amazing educator from New Hampshire, said in another session, “We need to be sure enough to be unsure.”

To do that, I think, we have to trust not just our students but ourselves and hold on to the belief that it may, in fact, be that willingness to be unsure that makes us, not only learners, but professionals—unless, of course, it’s something in the water in New Hampshire.

Edublog Finalist LogoP.S. Click through to vote for To Make a Prairie, a finalist for this year’s Edublog Award. Voting ends on December 18, 2013. THANKS!

Engaging with Engagement: Building the Need to Know

two girls

© Dmitry Vereshchagin –

A few months ago I had a chance to hear Mike Schmoker, author of the popular ASCD book Focus, speak at a summer institute. In his keynote, he shared ideas from his book, which was subtitled Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, and some of these I wholeheartedly agreed with. He came down hard, for instance, on worksheets, which he described in his keynote as busywork and in Focus as “the archenemy of abundant purposeful reading, discussion and writing.” And as I’ve written about myself, he warned against reading instruction that sends students off on “treasure hunts” rather than actually reading. But when it came to engagement I paused.

Cold CallingMany of the practices he suggested were similar to those advised by Doug Lemov, the author of the widely read Teach Like a ChampionThese include training students to keep their eyes on the teacher, cold calling on students whose hands aren’t raised to keep everyone on their toes, and launching lessons with some kind of teacher teaser intended to spark interest. For several of us listening, this sounded more like compliance and fear tactics than authentic engagement, and in this we weren’t alone. Charlotte Danielson, for instance, whose Framework for Teaching rubrics are being used, along with test scores, to evaluate teachers in New York City, describes engagement this way:

“Student engagement is not the same as ‘time on task’ . . . . Mere activity is inadequate for engagement. Nor is simple participation sufficient. The activity should represent new learning. What is required  for student engagement is intellectual involvement with the content or active construction of understanding.

This ‘intellectual involvement’, she goes on to say, requires designing activities and assignments that “emphasize problem-based learning,” “encourage depth rather than breadth” and “require student thinking”—none of which is necessarily happens when we stand in front of a class to share an interesting fact or anecdote that we hope will whet the students’ appetites.

I’m also not convinced anymore that ‘intellectual involvement’ is really kick-started by practices such as Anticipation Guides, which I used to use myself. Here, for instance, is one I designed for some 7th and 8th grade special students as the kick-off to a unit on relationship, in which they read several short stories by Gary Soto, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Sharon Flake and watched West Side Story:

Anticipation Guide on Relationships

© Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant

And here’s another one a group of science teachers and I created for a unit on genetics that would eventually involve the students exploring some of the complex ethical questions raised by advances in that field:

Anticipation Guide on Genetics

© Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant

In both cases the students participated. They actively read the statements, circling A if they agreed or D if they disagreed in the Before Reading column, before they turned and talked with a partner. But in addition to the fact that only a few actually wrote any comments, the thinking they were doing involved little more than recalling what they already thought, not constructing some new understanding.

Better, I’ve found, are visual images, especially in the content areas. Here, for instance, is a set of images of Venice that a third grade class I worked with studied carefully, one at a time, before embarking on a social studies unit on Italy:


Venice Flooded

Venice Map

In the first image, students were intrigued by the place, in particular what many of them thought was a castle until one child noticed the cross on the dome and thought it might be a church. They also closely studied the tray of the family in the foreground, noticing the silver cups and spoons and the slices of lemon in glasses, all of which made them think that the place was not only beautiful but fancy. In the second, they were actually aghast at the transformation of the beautiful place they’d seen in the previous picture. And calculating the height of the water from the half-submerged tables and chairs, they worried about what might have been damaged in the castle-like church. And finally, the third image helped them develop hunches about what might have happened to create such as disaster—especially after some of the students began to think that the blue lines that criss-crossed the city weren’t roads as they first had thought, but water ways that might flood.

NeedtoKnow-450x254Compared to the students who were circling A or D in the Anticipation Guides above, these students were involved in much higher order thinking as they used what they’d noticed to infer and developed hypotheses that might explain what caused the difference in the two pictures. They were constructing new understanding, at least a provisional one. And feeling a burning need to know, especially about the fate of the buildings, they eagerly dove into an article about the problems Venice faced with the kind of intellectual involvement that Charlotte Danielson speaks about.

Those students’ engagement began with curiosity, which many scientists, such as John Medina, the Director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning and Research and the author of the best-selling book Brain Rules, think is intrinsically connected to our capacity to learn. And that initial curiosity led those students to think and to discover, which in turn fueled their engagement. That all happened because I think that thinking is actually exhilarating and discovery, as Medina writes, “brings joy,” which can become downright addictive—especially when the thinking and discoveries arise from our own noticings.

Unfortunately, though, curiosity and joy seems undervalued and underutilized in many schools settings, particularly in the upper grades where, as Medina also says, “Fascination can become secondary to ‘What do I need to know to get the grade?'” And this emphasis on grades instead of fascination—and performance instead of exploration—leaves too many students disengaged and at risk for checking out, as can be seen in a recent Gallup poll that showed that the percentage of disengaged students climb steadily as kids move up the grades, with eight-in-ten students engaged in lower school and only four-in-ten in high school.

RosesI’m aware, of course, that it may seem much easier to tap into students’ curiosity with a compelling image than with a complex text (which Chris Lehman’s latest Close Reading Blog-a-Thon post painfully illustrates). But I’ll tell you when those 7th and 8th grade special ed students really got engaged: not when they filled out the Anticipation Guide but when they read the first short story, “Dozens of Roses,” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which I looked at last month. I invited them then to simply wonder, which I said could consist of something that confused them or something they were curious about. And with that and time to talk, they were filled with questions: Who sent Lucy the roses? Why didn’t she want them? Why doesn’t she have any pep now? And those questions built the need to know that naturally led them to read closely with their full mental engagement.

So what are you doing to build your students’ intellectually involving engagement—which, as Chris, also rightly points out “isn’t a thing, it’s the only thing” that counts?

Building Better Teachers

By R. Kikuo Johnson for The New York TImes. Used with permission of the artist.

Beyond All About Books (Part 2)

So how did the teachers and I help students write the wonderful creative nonfiction books I shared in Part 1 of Beyond All About Books? And how did we support those children who struggled with writing and English in general?

We began the way I start every writing unit, by reading the kind of text the students would be writing, in this case our mentor text Atlantic by G. Brian Karas. We’d return to the book many, many times before the unit was through, but the first time we shared it our goal was to help the students get a feel for the genre and think about how it was and wasn’t like other nonfiction they’d encountered.

To help them do that we initially asked each class to tell us what they already knew about nonfiction. Then we read a few pages of Atlantic, stopping frequently to consider how it was similar or different, using a Venn Diagram as a tool to hold on to the students’ thinking.

  Sample Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting types of nonfiction            

That part was not too difficult, nor was helping students grasp the idea of personification, which they took to quickly, ultimately personifying not just the country but rivers, mountains and even monuments like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What was challenging, though, was getting them to be more descriptive–or, in one class’s words, to paint pictures in words. They had plenty of facts but none of the sensory details they’d noticed in the mentor text. And so, short of buying everyone plane tickets to Cairo or Beijing, I brought in pictures that would help them see what a place looked like, and in some cases allow them to infer what it might smell, sound, taste or feel like.

While searching for pictures, I was lucky enough to stumble on an amazing creative commons photography website called Pixdaus, where I found stunning pictures from various countries, like these of China:

In small groups, students studied the pictures, trying out ways to capture what they saw—or imagined what they might hear, smell, taste or feel—in words. Then they returned to the rug to share out what they’d come up with, projecting their picture with a document camera so that everyone could see. Using the details and language they’d come up with, I then modeled how to turn those into a page that sounded something like one of the pages we saw in our mentor text.

I am the green of bamboo forests and rice fields built into my hillsides like stairs.

I am the sparkling lights of cities filled with people, shops and tall buildings.

The sound of people making wishes for lanterns and the smell of good food cooking in woks is me, too.

For some of the children, this was enough to get them going—especially after we showed them how they could use the pictures in the books they had in their classrooms to help them get that sensory feel. But the most reluctant writers in the room needed more scaffolding. I gathered three or four of them at a time on the rug with white boards and markers, two pictures of animals and a syntactical sentence template I designed based on a pattern I noticed in both the mentor text and some of the writing I’d modeled:

(Name the animal you see)   (Say what they’re doing)  (Tell when and/or where).

The first one we did together as a group, with the children talking about what they saw and me writing the sentence down using the template. Then they looked at the second picture and once again spent some time talking to share the various ways they might describe what they were looking at. But this time I asked them to each use their white board, and with the syntax template visible, write their own sentences, using any of the words or details the group had shared. Here’s a sample of what they came up with:

Pandas make a big mess eating bamboo in my green bamboo forest.

Pandas lie on their backs to eat bamboo on the green floor of my forest.

Pandas use their big white tummies as plates in my bamboo forest.

This kind of scaffolding allowed every student in the room to feel successful and contribute to pages that ultimately looked like this:

 But what made me know that the unit was a success was when the students, on their own, noticed something in the mentor text we hadn’t discussed at all and used it as a model for the ending of their books:

 And mentoring myself to the students’ text, I’ll end this post this way:

Don’t forget me. I am Creative Nonfiction.