Monday, January 27, 2014


As part of the non-fiction/essay unit for fifth-grade literacy, I chose to use the November Scope magazine which included non-fiction narrative, essay, and infographic all on the topic of homelessness in America.  The essential question was: "What challenges do the homeless face?" To get an idea of what students already knew or thought they knew about homelessness, I used the thinking routine See-Think-Wonder.  I displayed the cover photo of the article I Was Homeless, a photo of Kevin Liu who entered a homeless shelter with his family when he was in sixth grade after an illegal eviction.

In order to provide an opportunity to hear all students' voices, all three parts (seeing, thinking, wondering) were done among cooperative table groups. During each step, students recorded their thoughts on the chart in front of the classroom.

Students viewed the cover photo, discussed with their table group, and described what they saw:  a teenager wearing a funny shirt, an Asian teenager, a healthy, normal-looking teenager.

Next, students discussed what they thought about this person given the headline "I Was Homeless."  They thought this person was Kevin Liu, that Kevin had been homeless, and that Kevin was no longer homeless because he looked happy, clean, and healthy.

Finally, students discussed and captured their wonderings.  They wondered how old Kevin is, where Kevin lives, if he was still homeless, how he became homeless, if he ran away from his home, if he used drugs, if he lived on the street, if he was hurt when he was homeless, how long he was homeless, and what he ate while he was homeless.

This thinking routine put a face on homelessness for our students and directly led into the development of the essential question: "What challenges do the homeless face?"

Throughout the unit, students referred back to the STW chart as they learned more about Kevin Liu.  This activity provided an anchor as we read the narrative, and we highlighted in the text answers to our wonderings.  Students commented often on whether their initial thinking was correct or if their thinking was "off track" because they didn't have enough information when they first saw the photo and headline.

Using this routine allowed students to begin thinking about the social issue of homelessness and the impacts not only to people who are homeless, but to themselves and society.  The STW enabled me to understand where to begin instruction.  This thinking routine, like so many others, is a useful preassessment for planning.
After a close reading of the narrative, essay, and infographic, students were able to use the real-life example of Kevin Liu to synthesize the data and statistics provided in the essay and infographic.  We were also able to use our STW chart as a post-assessment, adding another column about what we learned.

Performance Task
As their final project, students wrote an informational essay responding to the essential question, "What challenges do the homeless face?


  1. Barb,
    I would like to know if your essential question is for the larger unit or if it was just for this activity, or both. I am working on essential questions as well and am experimenting with using them for much smaller activities, or parts of units, rather than thinking that I have to create a large unit. I like how the STW chart is related directly to your essential question.

    1. Jeff,
      This topical question was one of two used throughout the unit. The other one was: How does America respond to the problem of homelessness and are we doing enough? I, too, find it easier to start with the topical questions and gather them into an overarching question. The overarching question seems to morph out of the topical ones. The overarching question for the overall unit was: Who is responsible for responding to and solving social issues?

  2. Barb, I love this continuation of engaging your students in deeper thinking skills and increasing their understandings and empathy. It appears that STW was a great vehicle for anchoring their thinking. Referring back to the STW, allowed for reflection and revelations.
    Both of your comments about using topical questions in smaller chunks of units/activities helps me to think about how better to use them with my various groups.

  3. The STW activity was a great way to actively engage your students into thinking strategically about an important social problem (Homelessness). Each and every day we travel through areas that have a homeless person present so I know they are aware of them. IF we all took time to (see, think & wonder) we might change our thinking about what we need to do to support and eradicate homelessness. I was wondering if you used the STW activity at the end of your unit? It might be interesting to see if their thinking had changed or stayed the same. I know the kids were passionate about the topic, I'm glad they were able to take this on with you in charge.

  4. Barb,

    What a great way to dive into a unit of study and you seem to have a strong grasp of developing essential questions both as overarching and topical. It would seem one of the topical questions in regards to Kevin would have been what are our misperceptions of homelessness?...which as you said in an earlier post would lead to developing sense of who is responsible for solving this issues as a whole. If we do not have an understanding of the issue at a deep level and explore our misconceptions, there is no way to begin to solve the issue. I also think your use of the STW chart was a great way to start.

    I find this routine extremely useful at any age. I tweaked it recently after getting advice from my teammate Gail to try it as a See Wonder Think. Making this switch was huge for my kids who struggle to understand the difference between thinking and wondering. Perhaps it would even help with older stduents. A routine that may also have been useful as an assessment for this unit of study would have been the "I used to I think" to gauge how their understanding of homelessness changed during the course of the unit.