Notice the Tiny Triumphs

We need to celebrate the little things. These little bits of triumph are setting the course for the individual goals, benchmarks,  leaps, and bounds students need to make in order to be real thinkers and readers and doers and changers.

My Top 5 Tiny Triumphs of this School Year:

  1. A student who has hardly spoken until this week, who shook with fear during his first assessment, and who fake-read for a good three weeks (despite all I knew to do to make him comfortable), came to me and said that he thought his book was too easy for him. He wanted to try something harder. HE WANTED TO TRY SOMETHING HARDER.
  2. A kiddo who has made it his school-life’s goal to goof off and avoid all work has repeatedly run into my classroom because he cannot wait to find out what will happen next in our read aloud. I wait to hear that door open every single day. I cannot wait. His enthusiasm is matched by the others
    in his class. I love hearing their loud footsteps down the hallway.
  3. That same kiddo also told a knock-down, drag-out, perfect retelling of our read-aloud to another student who’d been absent… ARE YOU SERIOUS? That was better than I could do! He was my language arts student last year. This year, he’s in a class of 5 reading-intervention students. He is a completely different learner. Frankly, I’m very much the same teacher. What made the difference? *Too much to tackle in one writing.
  4. A student who has a really difficult time forming coherent thoughts, asked this question as we ended our study of schema, “So, is it like if you learn something new, then a new web is made in your brain? Then when you learn another thing new that connects to it, it can stick to make another web?” YES! YES! YES! And now when this kiddo is confronted with new material, he might not turn away. He’ll have an opening to it.
  5. One of my eighth grade classes, filled with kids who weeks ago wouldn’t speak directly to anyone but me and spoke in mumbled whispers for at least the first week of class… who’d also thought liking books and actually reading books was not for them, asked if they could Facetime their absent classmate to show her the two books they’d decided on for our read aloud and ask her which book she wanted to choose. Unfortunately, its against school policy to use Facetime, so I had to say no. WHAT? Not. A. Chance. They Facetimed. Truth be told, I would have looked up her number and handed them my cellphone if one of them hadn’t had her number.

Not Without Worry

I could go on with triumphs, but I won’t. Our triumphs are not without worries and failures. One night this week, I stood in our school book room talking with my friend about the issues I noticed with my eighth graders. Another night, a friend and I talked about our seventh graders. She said that she knows when kids are struggling that she needs to hold up a mirror and figure out what she’s doing wrong. And I joked that sometimes I want to pound the mirror against my forehead a few hundred times. In another meeting, I laughed and laughed with someone who only came to our school this year, but who thinks about kids and struggles with ideas, and asks for thought like all of the rest of us. We all struggle, every single one of us reading this, and we all have moments we can celebrate. In fact, I was just stopped in the hallway by a friend who told me that a kiddo we share (Kiddo from #1 T.T.) went from 2/20 on a vocabulary quiz last week to 11/20 this week. Is there still work to do? Yes. Approaches to figure out? Yes. Should we even celebrate growth that still amounts to an F? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Focus on Growth

I also want every teacher to know that the fact that I could have gone on with positives is most certainly the result of a decision I made long ago. At that point in my life, I needed to look for positives. It had nothing to do with teaching, and everything to do with the very most important part of life: family. When I was much, much younger than I am now, and my family would talk about positive mindset and focusing on the good, I thought that that mindset was “living in fairy tale” and unrealistic. But years later, I needed that mindset, and it worked. In about a thousand positive ways, it worked.

The five little bits of happiness listed above are not the end-all. I have not grown lifelong readers yet. But we have planted seeds. And if I focus my energy on the growth, then they’ll focus their energy there too.





Cognitive Closings

Time is of the Essence

Teachers and students never have enough time in a class period, school day or even a school year!  We are always pressed for time, and taking a few minutes at the end of class for closure seems somewhat counterproductive to the idea of saving time.  I promise that it is not.

The closing is a crucial part of each day File_000because students label what they learn and this helps them commit it to memory.  Closure also shows students how each lesson connects to yesterday’s and tomorrow’s.   Eventually, this practice saves time because students begin to connect the dots between days and reflect on their learning without being prompted!

Learn from My Mistakes

File_002 (1)MISTAKE #1:  Giving all of the closings to students at once, without modeling.

At first, it’s best to choose one closing at a time for the entire class.  Model it, and then have kids try it. Once they’ve practiced using all of them, they can begin choosing which one they want to use at the end of each class.

MISTAKE #2:  Not being specific about how specific students need to be.

Make them be specific.  If students learned the scientific method, they need to list the parts of the scientific method, and not just say, “We learned about the scientific method.”

MISTAKE #3:  Thinking students must always write their closings.

I do want students to write these closings several times a week, but students can also turn and talk to share ideas or discuss them as a whole class when we are really crunched for time.  If we skip the closing when we are pressed for time, we show students that it really isn’t a crucial piece of learning.


John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” People need this opportunity to reflect in order to process what they’ve experienced… whether it was confusion in math class, or a current event in humanities, or a character’s decision in language arts… I think of all of the reflecting adults do daily when we’re talking with friends, exercising, or posting on Twitter and Facebook. It’s our responsibility to show kids how to do this with matters of substance so they can choose their paths, make their plans, and be the people they’re most capable of being.

Try the prompts here, and let me know what you think. I’d love to help in any way and to learn from you too.

Cognitive Closing Prompts

List one thing you learned today, and explain how it connects to other parts of your life- other classes, family, friends, hobbies, or sports…

Share one opinion you have about what we read, saw, or heard.  Explain why you feel that way.

Connect today’s learning to something we learned before or to another class. Explain how the two connect.

List questions that linger from today’s lesson.  Where can you find answers to those questions?

Describe or draw images which illustrate today’s thinking and learning.  Add a short caption.

Explain how your thinking about our current topic has grown or changed since we began it. What/who changed your thinking?

Explain why what we learned today matters to you, your family, people your age, our community, our country, or humankind.

3 Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment

My most recent experience doing my own assignment is recording Notice and Note Signposts from the book Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading while reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  I bought 11/22/63 soon after it was released, in November of 2011, with the failed intention of having a 2-person book club with my husband. My husband read the book, but I ditched it. I tried reading it a couple more times over the next few years, but I always abandoned the book in the first 50 pages.

The Miniseries Made Me Do It

Tacky truth: A few weeks ago, when my hubby told me that the miniseries was soon to start on Hulu, I got the urge to read 11/22/63 again! It was like the stars had aligned: My students had learned the definitions of each signpost. I’d already modeled my thinking, we’d found signposts together, and I’d supported groups as they worked together to find them.  Just after I gave students the task of using signposts on their own, I attempted 11/22/63 again.


My Very Own Aha! Moment

The signposts made it possible for me to stick with 11/22/63!  The signposts and guiding questions slowed me down, of course, but in slowing me down, they engaged me.

3 things I learned by doing this assignment:

  1. I learned the signposts inside and out. (This didn’t really surprise me; we learn by doing.)

  2. I learned that signposts can be difficult to notice sometimes because readers just want to keep reading!  (This didn’t really surprise me; I’m naturally intense.  Pausing to be mindful is something I had to learn to do.)

  3. Looking for several signposts at once helped me understand and “get deeply into” the book quickly. (This surprised me; I read a lot.  I love to read.  I hadn’t even noticed that I’d been missing something which would help me be a better, more interested reader until I practiced these signposts with my own novel.)

I learned a ton by completing this assignment: I had to think critically about the characters and plot just as students had to, and that made it possible for me to teach them the thinking moves I’d made as I identified the signposts and asked myself the guiding questions.  I’d practiced signposts with picture books and videos, but using them in a novel helped me understand them on a deeper level. There were times I found myself having to stop every page or two to read the signpost definitions and think about whether I’d missed one.  Initially, this felt counterproductive, but once I began valuing the guiding questions, it felt natural.

The Big Debate:  Teach Signposts Individually or at Once?

I also realized that teaching all of the signposts at once is the way to go because different readers will connect to different signposts, initially.  This connection is key to the “buy-in” struggling readers need.  If readers have taken a week or two to learn each signpost, but after several weeks, haven’t connected with one that reveals big value, then every subsequent signpost has already lost its meaning.

Teaching all of the signposts within seven school days allows readers to build a signpost onebook-signpostsstockpile with which to attempt reading.  Signpost stock is invaluable in tackling a book. (For me, it was a book I really wanted to read, but couldn’t seem to finish. For many of our readers, this is any book because they haven’t learned the thinking skills to engage them for an entire novel.)

I worried that teaching the signposts all at once would be a double-edged sword for my struggling readers.  Typically, they are the readers in grave need of learning how to stick with a book, and they are the readers who cannot manage learning a lot at once.  I found that learning signposts all at once was best, and then offering differentiated assignments so students could choose ways to use signposts was the natural next step. Once students were comfortable using signposts at their own pace, they were really excited to attempt finding all of them each week.

Now What?

We can’t complete every assignment we give kids; but it should happen when we think they need it (or as in my case, when the stars align). It should be visible to students. It should be reflected upon.  We need students to see the mistakes we make and the smart moves we learn.

I’d love to hear which of your assignments you’ve completed and what you learned from doing them.  Why do you find this practice valuable?  How often do you manage it?

Featured Image Photo credit: ginnerobot via / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: Kim Klassen via / CC BY-NC

Teaching Thinking Strategies- Synthesis

What is Synthesis… really?

Synthesis is one of the most difficult thinking strategies for students. In the past, readers have been expected to be able to synthesize at the word and text level.  The Public Education Business Coalition (PEBC), explains this type of synthesis:

Synthesizing Information at a text level, readers…

  • continually monitor overall meaning, important concepts and themes while reading
  • recognize ways in which text elements fit together to create larger meaning
  • create new and personal meaning
  • develop holistic and/or thematic statements which encapsulate the overall meaning of the text
  • capitalize on opportunities to share, recommend and criticize books
  • attend to the evolution of their thoughts across time while reading a text, and while reading many texts

Synthesizing information at a word level, readers…

  • select specific vocabulary from the text(s) to include in their synthesis because they know that specific language is highly meaning-laden
  • know when certain vocabulary is critical to the text’s overall meaning, and therefore, must be understood if comprehension is to be achieved

Recently, with Common Core State Standards, students are expected use these synthesis skills across multiple texts of different genres and formats.

Synthesizing information across multiple texts and genres…

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.7Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.9Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.7Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.9Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

Synthesizing Multiple Texts

In order to synthesize multiple genres, students need a multitude of experiencesIMG_0521 reading different genres.  The students who synthesized texts for these lessons had read nonfiction articles, blog posts, memoirs, biographies, novels, short stories and picture books of various genres, and etc…, on different topics, daily for five months before I even attempted to ask them to synthesize across texts and genres.

Wait, keep reading!

If you’re realizing that this isn’t the case in your classroom yet, don’t worry: It can still happen.  In short, start asking students to read and annotate a nonfiction piece at least once a week, along with the group readings and independent reading students do daily. Soon, I’ll post my 60 Books in 6th Grade Reading Challenge which was inspired by a true book whisperer, Donalyn Miller.  I’ll also post the most effective thinking strategies I’ve learned in my thirteen years of teaching (I know, still a newbie, but I study wicked hard.) Both of these made it possible for students to synthesize across genres.

After students had read, annotated, and discussed many texts, with differing messages, but on the same topic (Gender Stereotypes), students voted on which texts we should synthesize.  We did this by a quick show of hands, and it was remarkably clear which texts this age wanted to analyze further:

  1. “Everything Will Be Okay” by James Howe
  2. Why I’m Raising My Sons Like Daughters” by Sarah Stewart Holland (blog post at
  3. Various Disney film clips

Our next step was to list the major ideas we learned from each text.  The photo below shows students’ exact wording.  The three circles with bullets are the major ideas kids learned from each text.  I really should have taken a picture after that point (But who is going to interrupt thinking to take a photo?)  The middle section is the next step in synthesis.IMG_0522

After listing the major ideas we learned from each text, we turned and talked about what we could read between the lines and infer that these authors believe, and we looked for beliefs they have in common.  After discussing ideas as a class, we decided upon three BIG IDEAS the authors share:

  1. We learn gender stereotypes from society. (We acknowledged that family, teachers, media, books, friends, and ourselves are “society”.  Major aha! for kiddos- all with my asking the simple question, “Who is society?”  Lights went on in each of their eyes as they realized that they can contribute to or challenge stereotypes.  LOVED that moment.)
  2. Be who YOU want to be.
  3. Challenging gender stereotypes is a way to break stereotypes.

Next, we listed these BIG IDEAS on this chart, or graphic organizer, so that we could begin collecting text evidence to support these inferences.  We did this step by gradually releasing students so that by the time they worked individually, they’d work with confidence.  Students began by watching me think aloud as I read “Everything will be Okay”, looking for text evidence to support the BIG IDEAS we’d inferred.  Next, students worked with their partners to find text evidence in “Why I’m Raising My Sons Like Daughters.”  Finally, students who were ready, worked individually to record evidence from class discussions and their personal interpretation of the Disney film clips we viewed.

Next Steps

Our next step in synthesis, will be to learn the reasons gender stereotypes exist, and why society upholds these stereotypes.  We’ll ask:  What purpose do these serve?  Once students have access to both sides of this issue, they’ll write an argument that synthesizes multiple texts and supports their belief about whether gender stereotypes should be upheld or challenged.

I’d love to have a conversation on ways you’ve taught students to synthesize across genres and texts? What’s been successful or challenging?  What questions to do have about our process?

Are You Asking, “Why Gender Stereotypes?”

I recognize how very challenging this topic is for adults, let alone middle school kids. Recognizing how we’ve contributed to stereotypes, or limited ourselves because of them, requires a firm sense of self.  Here is why I ask students to analyze this topic: there has never been one student, out of over 250 kids who’ve studied this topic with me, who didn’t recognize how limiting gender stereotypes feel to them every single day on the playground, in PE, in the hallway, in the classroom… EVERYWHERE.

I also acknowledge my personal beliefs, having grown up in a Free to Be, You and Me household.  No kidding; it feels like the record played daily. As well, my sister, Amanda Diekman, studies gender and society as a professor at Miami of Ohio.  In my home now, my daughter’s favorite sports to play are basketball and football.  Her favorite clothes are athletic anything!  She also loves crafts, doing her hair (for special occasions), playing baseball, reading, glitter, inventing, doing science experiments, writing, riding her bike, organizing and decorating her bedroom, hiking, wrestling… My two sons, ages two and four, love Legos, superheros, stuffed animals, cooking in their kitchen and with us, crafts, snuggling, reading, nursery rhymes, music, riding bikes, baby dolls…  I do share these tidbits of my daily life with students at times.

I also let students know that our purpose is to figure out what we each personally want for ourselves; we need to know that gender stereotypes exist in order to identify them when we are confronted with them, stop and think about our personal opinions and beliefs, and decide to either challenge the stereotype or to recognize the characteristic or behavior as something we truly feel is our own.

More on this topic later.  Too important to ignore.



Increase Thinking: 3 Simple Changes Will Make a World of Difference

Truth:  I am not a “quick thinker.”

Truth:  My mom and dad wouldn’t agree with that admission. Growing up, I was certainly “quick to react,” and I was described as having a “quick tongue.”

Truth: Reaction is what happens in the absence of strategic thinking.

Strategic thinking- thinking that maneuvers, changes, and grows can only happen if we are offered time. Time to process new information, synthesize it with prior knowledge, rethink, rearrange and revise, and decide how to share. In a classroom of 30-40 students, allowing each child that time sounds impossible.

Another truth:  I loathe the silence that happens after I ask my students a question.  For example:

“So, I’m thinking we should take extra time to read independently today since we had to cut it short yesterday.  What do you guys think?”

Blank stares.  A cricket under the bookcase.  Someone’s mom calls, and his phone vibrates.

Me again, kneeling on the carpet, “Seriously guys, do you think you need that time? Or do you have it covered at home?”

Someone raises her hand.

I bite.  I’m desperate.  I cannot wait for think time.

“Can I get a drink?”

Truth: Some students feel uncomfortable being an integral part of their learning.

Truth: Some students sit and wait for us to speak for them.

Truth: We’ve taught them to do this.

Here are few simple changes, to how we ask students to share their thoughts, that will make a huge difference for all students:

  • Wait time:  We all know what it is, but do our students?  Create a thinking culture by explaining why you pause after asking students a question.  Let them know you value “thoughtful thoughts” and not just their first thoughts.
  • Think About It:  Instead of asking “Why do you think…”, ask “Think about why… and photo- sky thinking best onewhen you have your thoughts ready, raise your hand, even if you don’t want to share.”  Once the majority of students are ready, say, “Keep your hand up if you want to share your thinking.”  It’s incredible how quickly this one works.  Students who never want to share, will begin thinking instead of letting others answer. They’ll also start sharing after only a few rounds of phrasing questions this way.
  • Turn and Talk:  It should be named “Turn and Process” because that’s really its purpose.  This strategy is tried and true, but it isn’t used nearly often enough.  I’ve found it particularly useful during lessons in which I’m modeling a certain skill. For example, pausing to allow students to turn and process what they notice me doing as I revise a sentence in a piece of writing, helps them pinpoint the important moves I make as a writer.  They are keen to observe once they realize their observations are important to their classmates.  Turn and talk very clearly places value on all thinkers. As kids are talking, be sure to confer with groups, and catch pieces of what students discuss, so that you can ask them to share out when the class comes back together. Letting them know that you value their thinking will open the door for sharing.

Simple changes.  Big impact.

Looking for a BIG change?

This week students began running whole-class discussions without raising hands.  We’ve worked on it for a couple of months, and this week they’re ready to run with it.  Teaching students how to have stimulating academic discussions without teacher direction at each turn makes a pointed statement to what we value:  their thinking.  More to come on the steps we took to get here.  Thanks to Alfie Kohn and his column ‘Your Hand’s Not Raised? Too Bad: I’m Calling on You Anyway‘ on  It was a reminder that the small changes written about above lead to big changes once students begin valuing their thinking too.

Teachers, what do you do to get every person thinking in your classroom?  I’d love to hear your ideas and tips no matter what grade level- preschool to college!  Thanks!








Design Matters: Creating a Place for Thinkers

Three Truths and a Leap of Faith

TRUTH:  I get a lot of flack from friends and colleagues about the time I spend designing, arranging, decorating, and rearranging my classroom.

TRUTH: The flack is well deserved. I should be more efficient; but efficiency is not one of my strengths, and I have far too many other inadequacies that I should improve first!

TRUTH: The time I spend figuring out what types of spaces will best promote reading, writing, and thinking for my students really pays off.

The Leap:  We need to give our kids a glimpse of these professional lives by letting them see, act, and feel these lives for part of their school days.

  • If we want kids to be writers, we must create authentic writing spaces.
  • If we want kids to be scientists, let’s create authentic science labs.
  • Mathematicians?  Let’s consider mathematical sciences careers, and redesign our classrooms.

After all, don’t our kids get that authenticity when visiting the art room, band room, gymnasium, and STEM room each day?

Planning Classroom Design

As I began planning my classroom design this school year, I thought about the types of places and spaces that contribute to my creativity:

Which places in my home foster deep discussion? I pictured growing up around our kitchen table, and then my mind flashed to my own family around our kitchen island, with my kiddos in their spots and my husband and I leaning in and chatting.

Where do I go to write? I’m usually at our kitchen island with my laptop- my feet elevated on another chair or sitting “crisscross-applesauce” in my chair.

Which place is my favorite reading spot? I get comfy in my reclining chair that sits next to my grandmother’s end table.  There is sure to be no overhead light; just the soft light from the table lamp.

I began to look at my classroom with the same lens.  I began to design spaces that authentically fostered thinking, creativity, reading, writing, and discussion.

And I did a lot of Googling.  I searched “alternative classroom seating” and found Setting Up for Second which reminded me of how we all love to gather around a good, old coffee table to chat, so I decided to lower two of the trapezoid tables I already had.  I also researched types of seating for students who need movement for focus and found Stabili-T-Stools.  I combined these ideas with my experiences about spaces that work for me as a thinker, and this is the plan I designed:

  • Students would work in groups of 3.  These would be learning groups that could potentially last for 8-9 weeks or longer (If the group and I felt that they worked well together, then they could last as long as the relationship was productive.  If it was not a good working relationship, we would try new strategies and readjust if needed.)  This would allow students to form working relationships with each other. Productive relationships (both personal and work-related) are founded on experience and time with each other, mutual dependence, and successes earned together.  I wanted to give students time to earn that, even if the relationships were rocky or uncomfortable in the beginning.
  • We would have a mix of seating options with the goal of students trying different options and reflecting on what might work best for their personal learning styles and the type of work being done (independent reading, group discussion, and etc).
  • We would group kids based on reading level with the intention of placing readers with others who can discuss the same book choices they make and various texts from class (Reading is the crux of the language arts curriculum in my classroom, and it is crucial for students to be able to have the time to think and to create understanding with peers at like reading levels.)

I scrounged for, gathered, begged for (Seriously, I posted on my neighborhood FB page, to which I had ZERO replies!) and bought the following items: traditional classroom desks and tables, short tables with beans bags, camp chairs with lap desks, cubes, Stabili-T-Stools, and mats.

Take a look:


Upon Reflection:  Three Truths and a Leap

Different, isn’t it?  A colleague who taught for me one day, when my own children were sick, teased, “She has NO desks!”

TRUTH: I’m not encouraging teachers to throw out the furniture and follow this lead.

TRUTH:  I do want us to think about our classroom designs.

TRUTH:  I asked myself what I  wanted my students to feel when they were in my classroom. I asked myself what settings promoted reading, writing, thinking, and discussion.  I wondered what students needed.  I examined my personal comfort levels.

THE LEAP:  About halfway through the school year, I asked students to complete a brief survey about the alternative seating in our room.  One-hundred percent of students liked having alternative seating options and believed that it helped them focus on reading and writing and contributed to discussions.  Ninety-five percent of students liked their current seats. Here are some student comments from the survey:

I like these types of seating because it kind of makes you feel a bit more independent. Sometimes the lack of space is too little if kids are at traditional student desks. I think kids should have a bit more space.

IMG Discussion 2
Memory foam mats are a quick and easy way to offer alternative seating.

I like this seating because there are various ways you can arrange. It helps me learn because when I can get comfortable in different positions, then I can focus better.

Camp chairs are great in the classroom.  They’re comfortable, lightweight, and easy to move anywhere in the room.

This seating is very comfortable. I think the more comfortable I am, the better I can learn and pay attention because I will not be fidgeting and trying to get more comfortable


This seating style has helped me learn because I like to move around more than just sitting, so the stability stools allow me to do that.

The comments and reflections from students on this survey, and from my observations and conferences in class, will keep me on this alternative seating path. Finally, another truth? At the end of the survey, I’d asked students if there was anything else they’d like to let me know about our classroom seating.  A few students suggested bicycle chairs, ball chairs, and bungee cord chairs (I’ll propose those ideas to my administrator.)  A couple of other students suggested we switch partners more often (I’ll figure out what’s not working on Monday.)  And one student suggested we add more windows to our classroom (I’ll let the student figure out the fundraising needed for that endeavor.)

What classroom designs work for you?  What spaces and places increase student thinking?  I’d love to get this conversation going.