Letting the elephant into our classroom (with thanks to Vicki Vinton)

All year long, we have worked towards the goal of internalizing and making habitual this idea: reading is thinking.  There is the text, and in the act of reading it, we are thinking and making meaning. 97c1ed0cfc1394aa068abd074368f7e9 Last week, we arrived at an interesting point in our nonfiction topic based book clubs – these are groups of four or five students reading different books about the same general topic.  As I’ve written about here and here, this is a very structured unit of study which borrows heavily from Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study, Franki Sibberson’s  The Joy of Planning: Designing Minilesson Cycles in Grades 3-6, and Chris Lehman’s Energize Research Reading and Writing Fresh Strategies to Spark Interest, Develop Independence, and Meet Key Common Core Standards, Grades 4-8.  We start small with a lot of modeling and me taking the lead in thinking out loud and showing my kids how I go about the process of “reading as thinking”, then move to partner work to practice and finally there are book clubs.  The first time I’d tried book clubs like these was last year, and my kids blew me away with the type of high level thinking they displayed in discussions which I uploaded here.  One of my regrets last year was that  my kids did not have a way to share some of this “big thinking” with their classmates. This year, I wanted to find a way to incorporate that “big thinking” into their final presentations.  I asked my kids to consider their texts with two questions in mind:

  • what did I learn?
  • what can I teach?  

Their presentations would incorporate both what they had learned through reading their individual books, as well as the “big idea” their groups could come up with – a summation of what their reading about a particular topic had led them to think about that topic.  The collective response to the unveiling of this was a collective HUH??  So, I did my best to try to explain what I was getting at, with only slightly greater success.  Part of this difficulty in communication was due to the fact that I wasn’t  particularly sure what this type of work would look like beyond, “discuss your books and see if you can come up with a “big idea” that connects your books.”   Which brings me to Vicki Vinton’s timely post this week: “Looking at the Elephant in the Room: Our Fear of Losing Control.” In it, Vicki discusses the power and challenges of inviting open ended questions into our classrooms.  And I was thinking of these lines when I was looking upon the puzzled faces of my sixth graders:

And I hold on, as well, to the belief that if we don’t open up our lessons to encounter the unexpected, we limit the opportunities for students to show us what they’re capable of doing without us as well as where their thinking breaks down.

“Let’s give it a try,” I suggested, with more certainty than I felt.  At first, the discussions were random and pointless – as sixth graders are often wont to do, my kids started tossing about ideas impulsively:

The group that read various books about war: “War is bad!” “War is destructive!”

The group that read various books about inventions: “We need inventions!” “Inventions are awesome!”

The group that read various books about the Civil Rights movement: “The people who fought for Civil Rights were really brave!”

…and each statement was inevitable followed with a “there, we’re done..now we can read/look out the window and see the snow falling/whatever…”. Not a great start.  And I confess that there were many moments when I felt as though I had lost control of the classroom, shouldn’t I just gather everyone on the reading rug and bring this to an end? But after a bit of pushing, a bit of encouragement, their thinking began to expand.

For some groups, the level of excitement (and noise) began to mount as ideas were explored, questioned, delved into, elaborated upon.  Now I was hearing things like:

“The type of inventions discovered seems to depend on what a society seems to need at the time, what people could really use and were ready for – even if they didn’t know it themselves.

“The people in the Civil Rights movement were really experimenting with ideas about how to get people to change their minds – they tried many things, because they didn’t know what would work.They were willing to try anything.”

Not all groups arrived at this type of discussion, of course.  And, when the dismissal bell rang, I knew I would need to spend more time on Monday helping these groups find a way to arrive at “big ideas” of their own.  I am hopeful.  I also had a raging headache.  We had muddled our way from “huh??” to “hey, I think we get this!”  Had an outsider walked in and wanted to know what all the noise was about – what would I have said? And, what had we accomplished in the course of the period – for no essays had been written, no worksheets had been filled out?

So I return to Vicki’s post  about creating spaces for learning in our classroom; sometimes it’s wonderfully freeing to allow our kids to define the terms of their own learning – to let them mess about with ideas, flounder, clarify, and arrive at something that’s all their own.  Sometimes, it’s rather nice having that elephant in the classroom!

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11 thoughts on “Letting the elephant into our classroom (with thanks to Vicki Vinton)

  1. Tara,
    We are all so afraid to let the students think for themselves because we fear they can’t do it, so we, their teachers, look stupid. I’m so glad you muddled through; I’m sorry you got a headache doing it. But you have taught us a valuable lesson about letting go some of our control and allowing for the possible failure.

  2. Tara – I LOVED reading your post. Much of my work with both my students and with teachers is centered around this very thing – taking the risk to go beyond the “right answer” to allow students to explore their own thinking to find meaning in texts. For many teachers, it is beyond their comfort zone, so they stay in the quiet of the “assign and assess” mindset. By opening up your classroom and allowing students to think deeply about the texts they are reading, you are giving students important thinking tools for not only making sense of text but to make sense of the world. Yes, it can be more challenging than using a teacher’s guide to mark comprehension questions “right” or “wrong” – but far greater learning for your students. Three cheers for deep thinking! Your students are very fortunate!

  3. Hi Tara,
    When I was teaching 5th grade and I tried to get the kids to engage in meaningful conversations I often had a similar experience. It was interesting how some groups gelled and others not so much. I am sure with all the great resource ideas and your expertise, you are going to do something very interesting next. Maybe a “thought jar” with these questions could be a possible conversation starting back-up: “what did you notice?”, “what did you wonder about?”, “who did this help/hurt?”, “how are things the same/different now?”, “why should we care about this topic?”, “would your parents/ grandparents/ neighbors know about this or want to know about it?, ” would you want to live at that time period?”, “how can learning about this make you smarter or more compassionate?” etc. I am sure you use these kinds of questions in your regular teaching, but having them in an envelope/jar where they could pull one out and ponder it then share…perhaps this would get the thoughts buzzing. Just a thought. Have you ever had your kids annotate in their books as they read? I called it “active reading” and I had managed to get each kid a copy of Number the Stars. We would then read the chapter in groups and kids would share their ideas that way. It did get the ideas going. Post-its would work, but I wanted to teach kids how to annotate because I loved doing it in my teacher resource reading (you should see Lucy Calkin’s Reading Between the Lines…I read that so often I used different colors to continue to annotate as I read). Plus I never wrote in a book until college and I had no clue how to do it. I highlighted my bio book to death. Not really helpful. (Can you tell I am missing the classroom?) Have a great Monday!. How about having a 3-5 minute pause if it gets too noisy/unfocused and ask them to let their brain rest and think about what everyone has said and then re-start the conversations???? I am big on brain research for teaching etc. and love sharing that with third graders who really “eat it up”! LOVE what you do as a teacher and blogger!

    • Wow, Janet – this is a treasure trove of wonderful ideas! I LOVE the idea of the thought jar with questions to nudge thinking…this is just the kind of thoughtful nudging that our kids respond so well to, it validates their own thinking but gives them some scaffolding. Brilliant! Annotation is an art form, right? We move next to historical fiction, and I am actually going to photocopy “The Boy in The Striped Pajamas” for each student to mark up (no $ to buy books). This is another adventure for us! Never read that particular Calkins book – but thanks for recommending it, and I’m off to purchase it NOW!

  4. I think Janet means “Living Between The Lines”, a book that means much to me too, that made me run out to purchase writers notebooks for my class & start! I love this “And, what had we accomplished in the course of the period – for no essays had been written, no worksheets had been filled out?” I think it’s called trust in the students, & it sounds as if you’re doing that very well, Tara. I love hearing what you did, & that you didn’t give up, but just nudged a bit. So often students are used to their own ‘wait time’, waiting for the teacher to rescue them. Sounds like you’re reading them to ‘not’ be rescued! Thanks for a great post about your metacognition.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful peek into your classroom! I am realizing that I need to be a better listener when I visit my book club groups, rather than swooping in with MY questions and MY agenda.

    And that bit at the end is what worries me, too, like a splinter or paper cut: no matter how much I know in my heart that the talk is building thinking that will impact both reading and writing, will it REALLY do that if there isn’t an essay or practice OAA questions or a worksheet? (YES…no…YES…no…YES YES YES!!)

  6. Tara,
    So glad you might give some of these a try. It is fun for me to share and then maybe the ideas might help, what a bonus. I am going to email you some annotating notes just to show what I do/did. Simple, but just for an example. One thing I let kids do was make their OWN legend choices (though I tried to get everyone to circle words for spelling in everything). They put their legend in the front or back cover of their book. I still have a couple copies that kids “loaned” me. I should really get those back to the kids!!! It has been a few years. We sat in a circle with our chairs when we would share what we had in our annotations, the first few times. I think I even read aloud the first chapter, modeled and then had them annotate as I read. Your idea will work and don’t forget about Donor’s Choose. You never know. Or ask Scholastic to help out! I showed the kids my marked up books from college. One is How Children Fail by John Holt. Not so much annotating, but enough. Then Calkins and Atwell. Like I was having a conversation with them and my own ideas. I find that fun and hoped if I could get the kids to “enjoy” it, it would be a strategy they would want to apply in the non-fiction texts where it might make even more sense. It’s really a good idea, I think, for Close Reading. Especially using two colors of pen to keep your personal reactions separate from the information in the text.

  7. Been meaning to comment on this wonderful post for a while, Tara, but I think I needed to be snowed in to find the time! The ideas that your kids came up with after you invited them to “give it a try” were stupendous; they were so much deeper, nuanced and thoughtful than what you might have gotten had you given them a graphic organizer. But you also pointed to something that I think stands in the way of teachers doing this more often—the expectation that by the end of a lesson students will produce something that assessable, whether that’s an essay, a worksheet or an exit slip. What I think people miss is that you were assessing; you were completely aware of which groups ‘got’ it and which groups were still struggling–and I’m sure you brainstorming how to help the latter based on where you heard their thinking stall. Maybe part of what makes us afraid is the knowledge that there are others out there ready to pounce and judge what we’ve accomplished by almost impossible measures. The only way to get kids to think this deeply is over time; it can’t be quick or easy. And I think that means that we need to be comfortable not evaluating every lesson by whether student’s ‘got’ it (which will lead us to teach things that are easy to get) but did their thinking grow and travel, which is evidence enough of learning.

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