Saturday, June 24, 2017

Creating Cultures of Thinking

Setting: The chemistry class for which I was a 4th quarter sub (see here for the longer story of how an English teacher managed THAT)
Me: What did you get for an answer to the next problem?
Student A: 2.4
Student B: 33.5
Student C: 0.22
Me: So, explain to me why you think your number is the answer.
Long pause
Student C: This is just like English class!  

I believe education—whatever class a student is in—should be not just about right answers, but about knowing how we got them so we can figure out when things go wrong, what we need to learn next, and how we can learn it so that we can tackle the progressively harder problems of real life with confidence, competence, and creativity. Ron Ritchhart calls this a culture of thinking. I just finished reading his book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, and I loved that it gave me a framework for thinking and talking about what goes well in my class and in my school, and how to help more of that good stuff happen both places. 

We all know that, by itself, changing a textbook, a set of standards, a curriculum, an instructional strategy won’t increase student learning (though it will increase teacher cynicism!). What will increase student learning? Changing the school culture. If we believe differently, we will act differently. These do go hand in hand—you can believe your way into action or act your way into belief. You can implement an instructional strategy and see it elicit thinking in a way you want to know more about and see become the norm for your students; you can desire a culture of thinking and gradually learn what attitudes, strategies, and practices will foster it. I think of belief and action as the blue and yellow that make the green of culture. 

So how do we change school culture from one of right answers to one of thinking? Ritchhart names 8 forces: expectations, language, time, modeling, opportunities, routines, interactions, and environments. I’ll give a brief summary or highlight of each, and I really hope it does whet your desire to read the whole book, talk about it with your colleagues, and create a culture of thinking in your school and in your classroom:
  1. Expectations: This is about our beliefs as they affect our behaviors, such as promoting learning rather than work, understanding rather than knowledge, independence rather than dependence, and growth rather than fixed mindset. I began this book last summer and this cultural force really struck me (see this blog). During the ensuing year, I changed the daily headings on my board from “agenda” and “homework” to “learning plan” and “independent learning.”
  2. Language: The words we use might seem insignificant, and yet they subtly but powerfully convey our beliefs to our students. Ritchhart breaks it down into the language of thinking (see above), community (using “we” rather than “you”), identity (speaking of the students as readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, historians, etc.), initiative, mindfulness, praise/feedback, and listening.
  3. Time: “Learning to be its master rather than its victim” is Ritchhart’s chapter subtitle. Two points that interested me were prioritizing (we often do it by default rather than intentionally—see Stephen Covey’s classic “big rocks”) and managing energy, not time (we have only so much time, but there are activities within time that are energy boosts or energy drains—like meeting with students vs. writing comments we aren’t sure will even be read).
  4. Modeling: “As a culture shaper, modeling operates on both an explicit and an implicit level. Explicitly, we may demonstrate techniques, processes, and strategies in a way that makes our own thinking visible for students to learn from and appropriate. Implicitly, our actions are constantly on display for our students. They see our passions, our interests, our caring, and our authenticity as thinkers, learners, community members, and leaders. Adult models surround students and make real a world that they may choose to enter or reject” (115). At my Christian school, we talk about teachers as the “living curriculum.” This works in our subject areas as well as in our faith life and ethical practice. It’s also a chapter out of the last faculty book discussion I was a part of. 
  5. Opportunities: The tasks we design for students—from daily activities to larger assessments to long-term projects should be not just “work” (see expectations and language) but opportunities to learn. Ritchhart gives examples of a 12th grade English class creating a math equation involving selecting and weighting character traits for Othello, a 9th grade social studies class using VoiceThread to synthesize learning on migration, and an elementary music class creating songs to sell to support music classes in other schools. The takeaways for any class opportunity are novel application, meaningful inquiry, effective communication, and perceived worth.
  6. Routines: Ritchhart’s chapter subtitle is “supporting and scaffolding learning and thinking.” He mostly illustrates how one thinking routine (Claim-Support-Question) is used in a variety of levels of math classes (kindergarten, 2nd grade, 5th grade, and secondary). I think this is the heart of his earlier book Making Thinking Visible, which is on my to-read for later this summer. 
  7. Interactions: We set the pattern, interacting with students by asking good questions (not just procedural and review, but ones that deepen thinking and connections and elicit support) and pressing for thinking. We help students interact with each other in the same way by training them in roles and norms. (I loved these norms: “contribute to group work and help others contribute, support ideas by offering reasons, work to understand others’ ideas, and build on one another’s ideas” (220).
  8. Environments: The chapter subtitle, again, says it all: “Using space to support learning and thinking.” There is, of course, the seating—the default setting of my desks is in pods of 4 for collaboration, and if students ever walk in and see another arrangement, they freak out. Unexpectedly, this chapter revealed another insight into my 2016-1027 school year: I loved my room. It’s the first time I’ve had my own room in many, many years, and being a nomadic teacher has its advantages (like many collegial connections). And my room was nothing special design wise. But it was mine. And as the year progressed, the walls became covered with our learning—vocabulary words, group projects, books read, poems written, group thinking. From this chapter I got the okay that it wasn’t all beautiful display, and I got a word for why it works and made me happy: curation of learning. (See photos below.)

One of my happy spots is in a book discussion with other faculty members, working out how we can do an even better job of helping students learn. Another is in a class where students are learning and helping each other learn. Ritchhart gives a name to those settings: cultures of learning. Read the book, talk to someone about it, and be a part of helping them happen even more frequently for more of our students.





Friday, June 16, 2017

What an English Teacher Learned from Teaching Chemistry


When Kim Essenburg woke up one spring break from unsettling dreams, she found herself changed in her bed into a chemistry teacher….

Not that chemistry teachers are anything like cockroaches—in fact, after a quarter of teaching chemistry as a long-term emergency sub, this 30-year veteran English teacher has a heightened respect for the variety and depth of knowledge and experience of all of my colleagues in all of their fields. My quarter of chemistry teaching also helped me appreciate my own expertise as an English teacher. Finally, I was intrigued by the ways good teaching is the same and different from discipline to discipline. Still, as I scribbled equations on the whiteboard, it did feel a little Kafkaesque.

The world intrigues me. From quarks to cultures, it is an amazing place. And reading is my entry to it all: from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. So, I figured, there are books about chemistry. There is YouTube. I had a year of Chemistry 101 thirty-four years ago when I was an indecisive college freshman. Certainly I can model a growth mindset and somehow tap into all that learning!

Chemistry is fascinating. If it is incredible that all of English literature, from Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare, is made up of various combinations of 26 letters, then it is even more incredible that everything in the physical world is made up of various combinations of 3 particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. I psyched myself up by re-reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I discovered amazing online resources from Khan Academy to TED-Ed’s Interactive Periodic Table.

And when I collected my first worksheet, the students seemed to think the point was getting the right answer rather than understanding how to get it. I realized simultaneously why I don’t do worksheets in English, and that it is my experience with teaching English that enables me to create assignments that are meaningful enough to spark engagement, creative enough to defy plagiarism, and still target important learning goals. I didn’t have that kind of experience in chemistry.

Another thing experience gives is the ability to explain even complex things simply, in multiple ways, while anticipating novice misunderstandings. If a student doesn’t understand satire, I have 5 other explanations and 10 other examples, both from literature and from life. If a student doesn’t understand the common-ion principle, all I can do is repeat the one explanation and one example I got from the textbook. 

For comic relief, there were a couple of interesting “when your science teacher is also your English teacher” moments. Like when I was clearing up confusion over what the capital K I’d written on the whiteboard stood for—I’d tried to make it look italic, which means equilibrium constant, but some students didn’t recognize that and thought it meant degrees Kelvin. I said, “How do I make it italic?” One of my English students volunteered, “Underline it! Underlining is italics!” (Well, yay they finally got that, and I won’t see Works Cited pages any more with mixed underlines and italics, but I’m still not sure the proper way to do it in science.) There was also the time I asked an English class to list the 7 reading strategies we’d talked about, and a student said, “All I can remember are the 3 you had us use on the nitrogen-fixing reading in the chemistry book.” (At least he remembered 3….) 

I tried to connect the learning to life. We read about chemistry professionals, researched for presentations on topics from the Nobel Prize for Chemistry site that interested us, and watched Chemistry Life Hack videos. (I discovered that even with chemistry life hacks, interest has to be calibrated to the students. For example, here in Okinawa, Japan, where many people don’t have ovens, there was little interest in the one on baking soda life hacks, but there was high interest in the videos on the chemistry of wasabi and how to treat a jellyfish sting!)

I used as many engaging teaching strategies as I could—I gave choice on an independent module reviewing gases or exploring nuclear and organic chemistry. They worked in groups to understand and complete the modules. To review chemistry vocabulary for the exam, I assigned each student in a class 5 words to create Freyer models for and orchestrated reciprocal teaching. 

My students learned about chemistry. I did, too. In addition to learning about chemistry, I also learned about teaching—how much I love teaching English and how 30 years of experience really helps, how much amazing knowledge and experience my colleagues have who can engage and challenge students in other disciplines. And I wonder what we can learn from each other about constructing meaningful learning opportunities; teaching skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and communication in the context of each discipline; and creating a culture where students see challenge as an opportunity to grow.

Khan Academy just sent me an email: 

Kim Essenburg, 
We missed you this past week! Be sure to come back regularly and continue learning!
If you make a mistake, it's an opportunity to get smarter!


It made me laugh out loud. Yes, it was a week without Khan Academy. They might have missed me, but I didn’t miss them. Still, those are a couple of great thoughts to bring to all of our students next year: Continue learning, and If you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity to get smarter.

Friday, March 31, 2017

To Thrive as a Teacher, Try a Professional Book Discussion


Last week I just had to drop in on a fellow teacher during our mutual prep period. I was enthusiastically waving a sheaf of papers: “Hey, I just tried that discussion roundtable we talked about last week at the book discussion—it worked GREAT!” She shared my excitement, and then we talked a bit about the collaborative activity she’d tried—what had worked well, and how she’d tweak it next time. 

One thing that helps me thrive as a teacher is being part of a community of colleagues working together to get even better at helping students learn. The best way I’ve found for creating this community is book discussions. I find a book that has ideas I really want to incorporate into my teaching. I invite colleagues to join me. We meet after school once a week over coffee and cookies to discuss one chapter and set a goal for implementing something we’ve learned before the next meeting. The next week we start by reporting on our goals.

This week we just had our sixth and final discussion of Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. It’s about how to intentionally structure lessons through 4 interrelated phases in order to help students become engaged, independent learners. The 4 phases are named and summarized in the titles of chapters 2 - 5:
  • Focused Instruction: Purpose, Modeling, Think-Alouds, and Noticing
  • Guided Instruction: Questions, Prompts, and Cues
  • Collaborative Learning: Consolidating Thinking with Peers
  • Independent Learning: Applying What Has Been Taught
I learned a lot, and tried some new things. I’ve become much more aware of and intentional about when I’m in each stage, how much needs to happen between the first and fourth stage, and how to foster accountable talk and use formative assessment in every stage to notice the successes and struggles of students and support them into deeper learning. As for specific things I’ve tried, I’ve written blogs already on implementing two different collaborative learning routines described in the book: group posters and discussion roundtables.

At the end of our final discussion this week, I asked my colleagues what they had learned and what they wanted to continue to focus on. Here are some of the things they said:

What have you learned?
  • I was held accountable to make goals every week. I also am starting to think about how to improve my teaching by modeling and demonstrating. 
  • Model my thinking more explicitly. Think through how I want students to think and talk--and model that.
  • I need to model & be intentional about teaching students how to work collaboratively & independently.
  • I really benefitted from considering the phases between focused instruction and independent learning. There’s a wide gap!
  • Establishing lesson purpose.
What do you want to keep focusing on?
  • I think I’ll definitely continue to examine my time management/structure during classes to include time for guided instruction
  • Taking notes on areas that students are struggling in (especially in math) so I can use it to know who needs extra help.
  • Being purposeful about explaining the expectations of working in a group/model how to work in groups (collaborative).
  • I want to make sure that my learning tasks are meaningful and relevant.
  • More modeling & think-alouds.
  • I hope to be able to implement more collaborative & independent learning.
  • I want to translate the purpose more clearly to students rather than just assigning activities.
I find it so energizing to be part of a community of colleagues that are focused like this on helping themselves, each other, and their students grow.

When I read a good professional development book on my own, I’m so excited about it that I zoom through it in a couple of days, and while I start with enthusiasm for each new idea, I end in despair at how to even remember, let alone implement, the 57 or so good ideas I came across. And when I go to a conference and meet a bunch of other people all learning about the same thing, I again get the initial emotional charge, the overwhelm of ideas, and no community, when I get back into my classroom, to share my excitement, understand my ideas, and offer encouragement, reflection, and accountability. 


So I write this blog for two reasons. First, to express gratitude to all those who have walked with me through a long list of book discussions and who talk with me online or in the hallways of my school about what we are doing to increase student learning in our classrooms. I also write it to encourage others, wherever you are, to try a book discussion with your peers if you’re feeling the need for encouragement, community, and growth. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

One Easy Trick for Better Group Work #2


I just watched my 10th graders have the best roundtable discussion they’ve ever had. Everybody paid attention. Everybody contributed. They asked good questions, made significant contributions to the conversation, and built on each other’s ideas. And at the end, each person synthesized what they saw as the most significant points of the conversation, so it felt like there was a kind of closure to the discussion, rather than a trailing off when everything seems to have been said, or an abrupt cut off when the bell rings. When they left, I had a record of it that I didn’t have to keep. And all it took was one easy routine. 

Here’s the routine: Give each student in the discussion a paper divided into as many sections as there are students in the group (4-8). There should also be an empty shape in the middle for summarizing or synthesizing the whole discussion at the end. Students put the name of one person in the group, including themselves, in each of the sections. As the discussion proceeds, students take notes in the appropriate section on what each person says, and at the end, they take some time to reflect on the entire discussion, writing in the middle a summary, synthesis, application, epiphany, new ideas they built together, or whatever is the goal of the discussion. 

See below for a sample of the record my 10th graders produced when doing a roundtable discussion after finishing the novel After Dark by Haruki Murakami.

During the discussion, students feel more accountable to make and to notice significant contributions. At the end, I can confirm across group perception the amount and depth of each individual’s contribution. I have a record of the deeper thinking each individual at the end. And students are writing as well as thinking and talking. (Kelly Gallagher says students need to write four times as much as teachers can grade, so anything that provides opportunity for using that skill is grand!)

This roundtable discussion routine is just one idea I got from participating in a book discussion of Better Learning through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility with colleagues over the last five weeks. (Earlier I wrote about one other easy group work hack: the collaborative poster.) The key to good group work is finding a way to hold individuals responsible. These are two really simple ways.

We know as adults that a lot of our growth comes in conversation with others as we rehearse, test, revise, elaborate, modify, and extend our ideas. We’ve also all had really bad experiences as students and as teachers with collaborative work that can be terrible unproductive. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater—find ways to hold individuals responsible.

Are there any simple routines or hacks you’ve found for scaffolding good collaboration?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Self-Care for Teachers: Reflect on the Good Things That Happened This Week


I’m tired. We’ve got one more week in third quarter, and everyone’s tired. The students are tired. The administration is tired. The teachers are tired. I suppose even the construction workers finishing the road that’s closed off our back entrance for the past five months are tired, but maybe thats just transference. So instead of reflecting on some big challenge or accomplishment in my classroom this week, I decided it’s time for some self-care: I’m going to collect some happy-teaching moments from my week. Let’s see…there was… 

The student who had to pop into my room before school, even though she didn’t have my class until later in the day, just to let me know how excited she was about Kite Runner: “I’m only about 60 pages in, but already it almost made me cry! It’s so good!”

The student who noticed Hamilton: The Revolution was back on the shelf the day after it was returned, and walked out clutching it with her eyes shining.

The students who borrowed off my desk the original language text of the Haruki Murakami novel, After Dark, we’re reading in class. One was to satisfy his curiosity about what exactly it is that is translated into English as “fish cake.” The other was to prove to his group-mates that a particular metaphorical passage made more sense in Japanese than in English. 

The student who returned Half a King with the pronouncement that it was really good and had totally surprised her at the end. (Her two worst indictments of a fantasy: predictable and bad ending. So this was high praise. I may have to get the next two books in the trilogy.)

The student who, when I was collecting unfamiliar words for our vocabulary list from the piece of writing under discussion, said, “Oh, can we please add idioms to the list, too?” (Students had asked about phrases like “can’t hold a candle to” and “no skin off my nose.”) I gave her a dubious look—is this looking for an easy way out?—and was about to turn her down, but she pleaded, “We might really use those!”

The student who, when I assigned a five-minute quick-write, said, “Is this where we’re supposed to use a dash like we did after yesterday’s write?” 

I’m in my happy-teaching space when a student loves a book; when students ask each other questions about the text in a small group discussion and go to the text to find answers; when students are curious about words, make life connections, and build on past learning about content or reading or writing. 

When are you in your happy-teaching space, and when did that happen this week? Try making your own list, and see if you aren’t feeling a little better.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Giving Students Audience, Occasion, and Purpose


Imagine 17 years of basketball drills and never playing a game. Imagine 17 years of piano practice and never accompanying a sing-along or performing for anyone. Imagine 17 years of creating artworks that were never displayed even on a refrigerator. I think I’d lose motivation after about 2 months. Now imagine 17 years of writing for no audience other than your teacher, no occasion other than an assignment, and no purpose other than a grade. 

Unfortunately, that doesn’t take as much imagination. Seventeen years is the life of a student from kindergarten through college—and during these years, students rarely (if ever) write for a real audience. Is it any wonder students’ writing motivation languishes?

When we write as adults, we write with an audience, occasion, and purpose in mind. Because of that, we want to grab and hold attention; to communicate clearly, attractively, and convincingly; and to not undermine our message with distracting or discrediting errors. I’ve been increasingly trying to replicate that for my students over the last several years—with varying degrees of success. Until this week in 11th grade. The prompt suddenly took root and took on a life of its own to the extent that students were asking if they could actually give the speeches they had written. 

Before reading and discussing a variety of pieces—long and short, fiction and nonfiction—on the topic of the individual and community, the students knew that at the end, they would respond to the following prompt, taken directly from our textbook, The Language of Composition: “The author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote, ‘What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.’ Write a speech that you would deliver to a group of your peers (identify which group) that uses Vonnegut’s idea as your main point and recommends ways to ‘create stable communities’” (392, #9).

I knew from reading the drafts that the speeches were fantastic. (My previous blog was on the individual writing conferences on this piece.) Students had bought into the idea of targeting an audience they knew with a topic they cared about, and they could imagine how they needed to connect with and move that audience. When students were ready to hand in their final drafts, and I had them self-assess on a 6-traits writing rubric, they said, “Oh! Can we do another draft? I don’t think I really have a thesis!” So we talked a bit about thesis (open, closed; beginning, end)—things we’d “studied” earlier, but then it was just “information.” I assured them I thought they had theses that were appropriate to the audience, occasion, and purpose. As they listened to each other’s speeches later, they could, indeed, come up with the thesis at the end of the speech. 

Then I asked them to do some metacognition: What did you learn about writing while working on this speech? Here are some of their responses:
  • I learned that writing a speech to a specific audience is kind of nerve-wracking, especially if you know them well. I know my class would start talking to their friends or stop listening pretty soon, so I wanted to make sure I kept their attention.
  • I never realized, until this section, that sentence variety is important. Not only does it keep a person engaged, but is also helps create vivid pictures. I feel quite poetic!
  • I learned how much anecdotes can help connect ideas.
  • From this essay, I learned that when I connect the prompt to my life, it’s much easier to write about.
When students read their speeches, they saw the immediate responses from their audience—laughter or gasps—and at the end we had a brief debrief discussion. I think they understand more about voice—their own and others’, commenting on how very differently people could respond to the same prompt, use the same quotation, or build their entire speech around an anecdote that no one else had picked out to use.

I don’t really know why this particular attempt of mind to give students an audience, occasion, and purpose worked so well when other attempts have been less successful. What I do know is when students take to heart an occasion, audience, and purpose, the energy around the writing is palpable, and the learning is, too.


How have you been successful in giving students occasion, audience, and purpose for their writing?

Friday, March 3, 2017

An Introvert Learns to Love Writing Conferences



I dread conferring with students over writing. 

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in it. Conferring is important. It’s paying attention. It’s differentiation. It’s assigning value to the task, the skill, the content, the writer, and the classroom writing community.

But I’m an introvert and a slow, careful, deep thinker. What if I go around to talk to each student, and I can’t think of anything to say? (It’s been a conversational bugaboo for me from way back: “How are you?” “Fine.” “You?” “Fine.” Awkward silence ensues.)

I believe in giving students time to write in class. Time is value: I give class time to what I value. It also gives “coaching” time: I’m available to answer questions as students tackle the assignment. So I walk around as they write, available. The problem is, students don’t always ask the questions they have, even when they know they have them. Then there are all the questions they don’t know they have. I need to probe. But I look at them hard at work and think, “Will I have something to offer them that is worth interrupting their writing?”

This week I mustered my courage and did it. And I was glad I did. I went from desk to desk as they bent over their notebooks or computers, and I had a brief conversation with each student about his or her writing. So I’m putting together my thoughts on a pattern or ideas for topics, so it’s a little easier for me next time.

First, and this goes back to planning the unit, teach specific writing skills and strategies with each piece of writing. Then the conference is a perfect time for a bit of formative assessment before even coming to a draft. 

Our assignment topic was a speech on how to build community. The strategies we were targeting were tailoring a speech to the audience and occasion (writer’s pick), and using specific examples or anecdotes to connect to the audience emotionally so we have their attention for our ideas (see Talk Like TED chapter 2 “Master the Art of Storytelling” and Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk that it references, this NPR article, and David Foster Wallace’s commencement address “This Is Water”).

“So, how’s the writing going?” might be the most natural opener, but only a couple of students have the confidence, personality, and level of writing metacognition to answer anything after, “Fine.” A few do. One asked how to cite sources in a speech, which led to a good conversation about audience and purpose—if, given your audience and purpose, it lends weight to your speech, say it. If your suicide statistics are from the World Health Organization in 20016, let your audience know you are current and credible! If it’s not weighty in that way, keep it in your in-text citation and Works Cited page in case of follow-up questions.

But I’d better have a follow-up question ready. One designed to see how students are doing on the targeted and taught skills and strategies. This time it was, “What audience and occasion did you pick?” The answers I got from second semester juniors ranged from their class if they got nominated for president next year, to a language class at the end of the year about how and why to use what they’ve learned, to a graduation address at the end of next year. They’d all gotten that bit of the prompt.

Some possible next questions: 
  • “What’s your thesis?” (generic, something they first learned in elementary school, but are always forgetting and always deepening the sophistication of their understanding of); 
  • “Tell me about one specific example or anecdote you’ve used” (specific to what was targeted in this assignment); 
  • “What’s come easiest for you in this assignment, and what are you struggling with?” (generic, and often uncovers important understandings and misunderstandings).

To that last question, one student answered, “I have all my information, I just can’t decide what order to put it in.” I summarized for her the exercise we’d just done in 10th grade (I blogged about it last week) and asked if she’d like some notecards. “Yes, please—five,” she answered.

With a student who had been absent the day before, I had the chance to catch her up on what she had missed. 

With another student, I discovered that something I hadn’t thought was effective (showing the David Foster Wallace speech) was her guiding star, and she had already read her speech to her parents. We had a conversation about when it is okay to not be explicit about a Biblical perspective when it would alienate part of our audience at a given occasion.

I know I have books on writing workshop that have lists of questions. I need to go back and compile them. For now, my list is…
  • How’s the writing going?
  • Question about a specific skill/strategy taught, like “What’s your audience and occasion?” or “Tell me about a specific example/anecdote you used.”
  • What’s your thesis? 
  • What has come easily?
  • What are you struggling with?

What questions do you ask students in writing conferences?