This is when I begin my ritual. I sit in my comfortable old worn leather recliner, often with my favorite blanket on my lap. I have a home-made lap board that fits across the arms of the chair converting it into a very comfortable desk. On this are my laptop, mouse, journal, pens – and the stack of papers that I need to grade. I’ll generally have the television on the sci-fi or discovery channel; I just like the noise. No overhead lighting; just the warm glow of a couple of lamps. A nice cool beverage is nearby. I’m ready to begin grading.
The calm and peaceful setting generally doesn’t last too long. Without fail I come upon a student’s work that shatters the serenity of the evening. As I look at their work the question is always the same, “What the %@!*$ were they thinking?” How could this child sit in the same room as the other students – breathing the same air – and not know this???? I mean really – are they just converting oxygen and sugar into carbon dioxide and water and waiting for the bell to ring? I generally say this out loud with a growl. My wife will look over at me – shake her head – and go back to what she’s doing. The dog will decide it’s a good time to check things out in the other room.
How could this happen? I worked hard preparing the lesson. I’m not a worksheet kind of teacher. Thought and planning went into the assignment. I assess as I go along – I try to read my students. I feel frustrated. I’m not really mad at the student; I think most do their best. I also know I’m not a bad teacher. I just feel frustrated that this happens. I mean, geez – I’m supposed to be a professional. This is what I do for a living. Why can’t I get better results? I want to shake my fists and scream. It’s a scene that has played out over and over during my career. And the really sad part, the tragedy is - I’ll do your laundry for a month if you can tell me with a straight face this has never happened to you. I think this happens to all of us. After all of my years of teaching, the question still hangs in the air…
That are they thinking?
We can see the results of their thinking. We have the assignment they completed. We see their behavior. We hear the things they say without thinking. What we cannot see are their thoughts. We cannot peer into their minds at the source – the headwaters for the thinking and ideas that ultimately become the behaviors and outcomes we wish to influence. Or can we? What can we do to make the invisible visible?
I have discovered the secret. It was not shrouded in secrecy, concealed in a dusty tome of knowledge, sequestered in an ivory tower of knowledge. It was hidden in plain sight. If we want to make thinking visible all we have to do is invite our students belly up to the spacebar and write for us. A cursory glance at a dictionary reminds us that language is but a formalized system of symbols used to communicate thought. Writing leaves behind the tracks of a student’s thinking and opens a window through which we can see what they know and understand.
Digging deeper, can we discover their thinking – or at least influence their thinking – before they write? I believe we can. It’s as simple as having students talk to each other. How many times have you taken a long walk to think things over? Didn’t you have a conversation with yourself? Have you ever “talked things through” with a friend? So why do we have quiet classrooms and tell the kids to be quiet? I need my students to talk to each other (purposefully) to form their thoughts. I need them to collaborate. Then I need to them to write and leave evidence of their thinking. It’s just – that – simple.
Ok, but what kind of writing? We must remember that education is something that happens within a student – it’s not something we do to them. The writing must follow that philosophy. I’m finding that the kind of writing and talking that reveals thinking must be a thinking strategy the students use, not a product they produce for a grade. I am beginning to have students annotate physics problems in the same manner they do paragraphs in their English or history classes. I want them to reveal their thinking to me. Cornell Notes give students an opportunity to reflect and interact with their notes in a way that is visible to others. Reflective journals are useful. A simple conference during class with a single student or a small group is effective. I am considering trying conversation calendars.
I am discovering that almost any good ‘ol fashioned literacy strategy is applicable in my science classroom in almost any situation. After all, aren’t we asking students to understand problems, graphs, diagrams, concepts, and demonstrations in much the same way we ask them to understand the written word? In all cases we are asking students to construct meaning from what’s in front of them.
An additional key factor we must consider is the feedback we give our students. The kind of writing I am advocating is conversational in nature. Students reveal their thinking (which makes them vulnerable) and we need to honor that effort with thoughtful, supportive feedback. A growth mindset attitude is imperative in this interaction. If the language used makes the student feel judged – they will quit working for you in a heartbeat. They need you as a guide and mentor, not a judge and jury.
The need to be a guide and mentor is an issue. I don’t think it’s possible to have the kind of interactive writing I’m talking about in a traditional classroom. I don’t think we can be a mentor at the same time that we are being a lecturer. The roles – and the power structure – are different. I am convinced that the structure of our classrooms influences the culture of our classrooms. The flipped mastery model, modeling instruction, and the workshop model are better suited (in my opinion) to building the kind of class structure that fosters an ongoing dialog with students.
As each day goes by I am more convinced I teach reading and writing – I just play in a physics sandbox with the kids. The physics provides an interesting topic to think about and experiences that make us curious. I even consider the math to be a language we are trying to get them to use and understand. It’s just more reading and writing.
I would love to know what you think about this. Am I just a slow learner catching up with the rest of education, or was there something here worth thinking further about? Leave a reply – I can’t read your mind – you need to leave me the tracks of your thinking. Open a window into your thoughts so I can see what’s on your mind.