Thursday, January 30, 2014

UbD, Thinking Strategies, and MLK

This project began w/ a team coaching conversation with Michelle.  We were all struggling to fit Thinking Routines lessons and activities within our Literacy block while really trying to focus on teaching kids to read.  Turns out, our “mini” lessons were anything but ... we were really teaching content lessons, and not mini lessons focusing on a reading strategy.  

Michelle suggested we use our end of day skills block as our Thinking Routines block, and try to integrate skills such as handwriting and phonics practice into our Reading block.  I decided to make one change, and began to integrate Big Ideas with our learning around Dr. MLK and make that their handwriting practice which they did during independent reading time.  Throughout the unit their handwriting practice has included:

“Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in non-violent protest.”
“Segregation means ‘separate but equal’.”
“Not everyone believed in Dr. King’s dream.”
“Rosa Parks helped to change unfair bus laws.”
“African Americans in Alabama boycotted the bus - they walked everywhere.”

I took these Big Ideas and wrote them on sentence strips.  I told the kids they were going to work in groups to illustrate their learning of these Big Ideas.  I have always felt that I’ve struggled to get good artwork from my kids, and yet I’ve never done an Art Rubric before ...  I took the time to (literally) illustrate with pictures and words what a “1,” “2,” “3,” and “4” piece of artwork looked like, and the kids helped with the language.  What a huge difference it made in the end product! 

The kids chose which Big Idea they wanted to work with, and then we set the foundation for working in groups:  they had to first activate their schema and have a discussion to determine importance as to how they wanted to illustrate their learning.  This involved asking questions of each other to have healthy discussions to clarify their thinking and to determine what should or should not be included.  Their illustrations had to show relevant sensory images, and they had to defend, to me, what their vision was before they were allowed to put pencil to paper.  They were encouraged to use all the books and resources in the room to find ideas.  

I learned several things:  1) I had to re-think my Lit and Skills block (mostly Lit) from a planning view, focusing on a 5-10 min. mini lesson on a reading or thinking strategy so the big content lesson would come at the end of the day.  2) Integrating Big Ideas from content into their handwriting has had a two-fold effect:  yet another exposure to the big idea and essential understandings around Dr. King and civil rights, and a marked increase in neater handwriting.  3) The next big thing I learned is nothing new, yet always seems to be a surprise:  go slow to go fast.  I have never taken the time to show the kids an Art Rubric, yet when I took the time, I got work that is far better than any I’ve seen yet this year.  4) An important side effect:  one of my African American boys, who struggles and has shown no evidence of "visible" critical thinking all year, latched ON to this content.  He was inferring, determining importance, synthesizing, and memorized Dr. King's speech.  It was a huge lesson to me that we have to be consciously teaching content in a way that will engage this group of students.

By modeling for them the difference between a really incomplete piece of art v. a fully complete piece of art, the kids took more ownership and made sure their ideas were relevant, important, and had details.  I took my time ... they are taking their time.  It has taken a week to complete these projects, and the time and effort (I believe) is revealed in their artwork.

"Dr. King believed in change through non-violence."  (He's preaching on one side, standing next to Gandhi on the other.)

"Not everyone believed in Dr. King's dream."

In the future, I will revisit the Art Rubric when asking for sensory images, and will remember that if I take the time to fully show them what I’m looking for (go slow), then I will more than likely get more appropriate work next time (go fast).  We are beginning inquiry circles in a few weeks and those always culminate in a project similar to these.  I am expecting the kids to be more focused and provide more details with their end of unit learning because of their experience with their Dr. King artwork.

Also, I will continue to integrate Big Ideas from content into their handwriting practice.  I am consistently hearing (during this group work) active use of relevant vocabulary.  Almost everyone can name the key players in the civil rights movement and define “segregation” and “boycott” and “non-violent protest.”  AND, I’m getting neater handwriting as yet another benefit!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Explanation Game

One of the essential questions for the ECE tree study is "What creatures live in trees and why."  In order to answer this question, the class looked at a variety of pictures of creatures in trees, including birds, squirrels, bees, and monkeys.  We used the pictures as a basis for discussion about animals in trees and tried to develop theories about why an animal would live in trees.  After the discussion, we also read a book called "Who Lives in Trees."   This book provided some information supporting and/or disputing the theories.

At the end of the study, the children created a book and used their thinking from our Explanation Game discussion on their page about animals that live in trees.

A raccoon lives in a tree because it needs a home and wants to meet squirrels

A bee lives in a tree because it needs to hide from its predators

Bees live in a tree because they need to hid from animals that want to eat them

A squirrel lives in a tree because it likes nuts that grow on trees

A monkey lives in a tree because it is eating bananas

I hope to include the explanation game as part of every study (and possibly a few times within a study) in order to help the students construct their own knowledge.  The ECE team is using the Backward design template at the beginning of each study so that we are more intentional in our planning and focusing on our essential  questions. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The C: Color of CSI: Color, Symbol, Image

Both my third and fourth grade classes begins each day with our weekly poem. We spend at least one week on a poem, each day discussing our thinking and noticings or completing different routines to push our thinking. There are many purposes for implementing morning poem: First of all, it is one time during the day when oral fluency is emphasized. Secondly, this is one way I can address many different standards while exploring poetry. The new common core standards do not focus on writing poetry, but being able to make meaning of poetry is incredibly important. Also, many literary techniques and skills lessons are reinforced in our discussions.

This particular week we were working on Winter Eyes. 
Each week when planning poem, I think about what skills and standards we need to cover. I have a list of skills I plan to discuss. (This could be considered a very informal version of backward planning.)  In looking at this poem, I wanted students to clarify unknown vocabulary (colbalt, birch, velvet, sleet), notice sensory details, notice the organization, use their background and/or inferences to infer what is meant by the last two lines, and of course make meaning of the poem.

On Mondays students start by tracking their thinking. Then, the remainder of the days are spent discussing student's thinking and noticings. They lead our discussions, but I have an agenda of my own. If by Thursday they haven't addressed a point I wanted to discuss I will ask questions to spark their thinking. 

This happened to be a week where the students worked through these expectations quickly. We still had one day to work with the poem and deepen our understanding, so I decided to use a the Color, Symbol, Image thinking routine to guide us. Although, since it was our first attempt at using the routine, I just started with the color. (We only spend roughly ten minutes on poem each day.) I asked them to determine what color they thought represents the poem and explain what made them think that. The color that they chose was not extremely important, although it was a good measure of comprehension. It was more important to me that they explain their thinking, hopefully using evidence from the text. 

Overall, CSI was an intriguing routine to use because it allowed students to share their thinking in a different way than usual. I feel like I need to use it more consistently in order to get deeper results, but I was pleased with their thinking being it was our first attempt. Below are a few students responses.

The explanation for why this student chose white.

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?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Oh Deer!

The third and fourth graders are learning about ecosystems.  We are coming to the end of the unit, so the students have a lot of schema mainly around producers, consumers, decomposers and all the living and non-living things an animal will use as resources to get food, water, shelter, space and air. On Friday, we played a game of Oh Deer! where students line up across from each other, half of them are deer and the other half are resources (food, water etc.).  They turn around and the deer attempt to find a resource, if they do, the resource becomes a deer and life is good.  If they don't, they die (and if the game is true to real life, they die in VERY dramatic fashion!)  We played 10 rounds, each round representing one year of life.

Before we every went outside to play the game, student scientists made a data table and had graph paper so that they can graph their data for deer population over 10 years.  My essential questions were:
  1. What is the relationship between the size of the deer herd and the number of resources available to the deer? and 
  2. Why is balance important in an ecosystem? 
I projected these questions and we discussed them before we played.  The first question is a topical question the second is more overarching and much more general, and one that will hopefully lead to more discussion.
After playing the game, we discussed possible answers to these questions, but didn't document any of them yet.  My plan is to put together their data, and then have them use a thinking routine to capture their thinking.  (Chalk Talk? Step Inside?)  My intent is for them to synthesize their thinking at this late point in the unit.  Our next topic is to look at the interactions that trees have in order to survive and I am planning on using the same questions for that study: What is the relationship between the size of a tree, or health of a tree and the number of resources available?  and Why is balance (for trees) important in an ecosystem?

Honestly, I am really struggling to effectively put the UbD into practice.  I am overwhelmed by the scope of the book and am realizing that I also don't always put enough effort into the "big picture" planning that is necessary to really implement the different components.  So, I am working in small steps to implement Essential Questions to smaller pieces of my plan.  This is why I am just looking at the next two weeks of science.  I am also thinking that I will use and/or revise these Essential Questions for our final, culminating project in the Ecosystems unit where student have to create an ecosystem for a fictional "homeless" creature.

Tuesday, January 28th - After playing Oh Deer! on Friday, we came back on Monday, reviewed our data, then the kids recorded their answers to the essential questions.  This was obviously just a first shot at this.  I used the routine Claim, Support, Question.  We talked at length about the meaning of balance in an ecosystem, what could throw and ecosystem off balance, what are some factors (disease, predators) that could alter the health of a deer herd.  Students were then challenged to write a Claim, Support and Question that addressed either one or both questions.  Some attempted to answer very literally, others put together claims that were based more on real life. Here are a few samples:
  • I claim that if the population goes down really low, it will nearly double in the next few years.  I claim that because in Oh Deer, when we had 100, it went up to 180.  What would happen if the deer population went down to 0? 
  • I claim that the deer go down because of some wildfire or something horrible.  I claim that because I watch videos of wildfires killing poor animals.  What else makes deer population go down?
  • I claim that, when the deer population drops down all the deer will have a lot of food so the next year deer will have babies then the population will go up again.  I claim that because nature comes and goes but population can go and come back and I also predicted that.  I wonder if deer have a litter of babies or one each time.
  • I claim that balance is important in an ecosystem.  Also because deer need water.  All animals need waater and if they had no water then they would die.  How is water not affected in a forest fire?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Backward Lesson Design

At the beginning of our unit planning, the 3rd and 4th grade literacy teachers came up with the essential question, "How do writers purposefully create and design a meaningful plot that invites their readers to envision and infer?"  It seemed out of my grasp at the beginning of the unit because it required so many steps to get to that understanding. I began to use, "What makes a story worth reading?"  We continue to answer that as readers and writers in a revised "Chalk Talk" routine from Making Thinking Visible.  Students continue to add their growing understandings to our chart.

Some of their thoughts about what makes a story worth reading...
"Description - because it puts a sensory image in your head."- Trevor
"It pulls the reader into the story." Tishyla
"To be worth reading, you have to feel what the character is feeling." Harper
"What makes a story worth reading is a great problem and resolution." Caden
"To make a story worth reading it has to have adventure or you have to care about the character." Rowan
"The more you read, the more morals you know, the more morals you know, the more you understand life." Kaia

For me, the challenge of Backward Lesson Design is that I don't know where students will lead me and as I come to know them my goals of understanding change.  This is what I have now...
Why do people write and share their stories?
How do writers create stories that people want to read?
How do readers get to know characters deeply?
How do conflicting characteristics help us infer/predict/monitor for meaning?
Now that I am learning about Enduring Understandings, I am planning to use the Making Thinking Visible Routine of Headlines to help assess what students are taking away. Do students understand that...

Authors share a message or a theme that is universal.
Authors develop characters that connect with readers.
Authors follow a predictable structure. 
Empathy helps us understand others feelings, motivations, and traits in life.
Stories communicate life and connect us to one another.
Stories are how we pass along meaning.

We'll see what happens!  :)

Thursday, January 9, 2014


As with most units in science, I try to have students make connections to their own lives. These often make excellent essential questions that aligned nicely with the Understanding by Design process.  During our current unit in 8th grade science on wave energy, students were learning about wave characteristics, such as frequency and amplitude, but I think we lost sight of why wave energy is important to us.  Enter the headline routine from Making Thinking Visible, which is great at allowing students to determine importance.  I assigned students a random partner to collaborate with and to answer the prompt, "How do waves benefit humans?"  Additionally, I have them write a brief paragraph to give supporting details to clarify their headline. The example below was exactly what I was hoping for.

They nicely explained that visible light waves from the sun allow photosynthesis to occur produce oxygen for us to breathe, as well as to be able to see.