Posts Tagged ‘Making Thinking Visible’

So, I’ve been thinking about making connections to ideas inside and outside of the books we read. I have always been a fan of a good mindmap or web, even before I knew about Making Thinking Visible. I don’t think there is ever a bad time for color coded charts and diagrams. And, yes, I did teach in lower school grades.

However, I think maps and charts and colored lines here and there are helpful even for students in high school. Earlier in the semester, I asked my seniors to work on a visible representation of the connections between the text, outside information that we had discussed, and thematic ideas.

My class was reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers. We were most of the way through the book. During class discussions, we had talked about the narrative structure of the book and how Myers uses the journal entries and the screenplay to do different jobs. Towards the beginning, I brought in information about NY State laws about the age at which young people are tried as adults, statistics about numbers of minors in adult prisons in NY, racial breakdowns of inmates, and brain research about the age at which young brains are able to consistently consider cause and effect. Of course, we were also discussing the theme of identity, in addition to the reliability of Steve (the protagonist) as a narrator. It’s a lot to have swirling around in our heads. And, I really wanted the students to think about how Myers was weaving this all together as an author, since one of the goals of the unit was to identify and consider the writer’s use of first person and other “writer moves” in a story that in some way deals with what happens when black boys come in contact with the criminal justice system. (Our other books were Hush by Jacqueline Woodson and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely).

Here’s what I did.

I brought in copies of a dozen or so passages from one night’s reading that I thought were particularly important. I also brought copies of the various supporting information that we had looked at earlier, big paper, scissors, tape, and markers. I asked students to connect the text to our newly acquired background knowledge and to thematic ideas and if possible the literary techniques Myers was using. Since I love this kind of stuff, I had a handy reference image from last year. This time, I also created a chart with the same information on the white board.

In my good, 5th grade fashion, I created this.

It was super interesting to look at what the students created. Some groups were all about boxes and neat groups of text. This strategy worked for the first go round of attaching our background info to passages or to connect themes to passages. However, once they needed to add the second category, it was not going to not be as easy to keep everything in the neat boxes.

The second group also started with some boxes, but was then trying to add another category level.

Only one group was really not thinking ‘boxes’ first. They may have made the least progress in some ways. However, I think they did a lot of looking and considering. It was a quiet group without a forceful organizer, which is another interesting variable. The other two groups each had a vocal organizer who forged ahead with a structure.

What I really like about this activity, besides the obvious thinking about the information and all the ways students can successfully do the work, is that the groups got to look at each other’s products and ‘see’ how their classmates think.

I am sure I will do something similar again. I might spread it out over two days, even if we did not use all of either day. I think this is the kind of work that would really benefit from time away and then time to review. Plus, I might carefully engineer the groups in terms of learning style or introvert/extrovert.

Plus, who doesn’t love a crazy, mixed-up mind map?

So, I’ve been thinking about curious conversations with #CLMOOC. It’s been about close listening, digging into an idea, narrowing in some ways. I post about it. I plan to talk more with Scott Glass about what he does with his students so that I can maybe use it to improve my podcasting ideas, which so far have refused to take off despite serious and quality attention from me and others.

Then, everything turns upside down and I’m thinking about the big picture of connections and community rather than the small, one-one conversations. Here’s how it happened.

I headed over to my #CLMOOC column on Tweetdeck to reply to a few tweets and see what was happening before the day got away from me and I saw this.

Game over. No work is happening. (But it’s good. I mean it’s learning, right.)

I followed the link, read the brief post, and then went to the real data cloud. Go look at it now! The data cloud in action is amazing. It’s mesmerizing. I love the idea of making ideas, thinking, and connections visible. But then, to do something about it, to aim to make an introduction or pathway for someone on the edge to connect? Fantastic. This is what we as teachers try to do all the time with students. We want them to be able to connect with their classmates, connect deeply with ideas, listen to each other. But, do we have the data to know not just who talks, but with whom, who connects and who needs an introduction? I can look around my room, listen, and look and get a sense of who is participating and who isn’t. I try really hard to know how my students learn and to push and support them. But, this dynamic map of the conversation, it’s a game changer.

Here’s what I’m thinking about at the moment:

  • Similar kind of conversation mapping is done sometimes as part of formal observation or research and is time-consuming to do. What could I learn if I record my class and then go back and make a similar, but not dynamic, map. I’m sure I would discover something new.
  • What about in larger, community spaces? Which students have expansive social networks that go across sociocultural groups, and which don’t. For those who don’t, what does this mean in terms of the range of ideas and opinions they hear from peers? How many of our students are in idea bubbles? What data would we need to learn this and what could we do if we had that data?
  • Same for colleagues in the school. Who keeps the his or her department? How does that impact his or her greater understanding of the school, the curriculum, the student experience?

Since the world of classroom and teacher conversations do not happen on Twitter, I won’t be able to use tag explorer. And, classroom observation is not new. However, I do think that thinking about classroom observation not as an evaluative event, but as a way to gather data about connections is different.

Then, before I could even post this, I tweeted a little about how interesting the connection visualization is and wondered about classroom use and got a couple of replies including this one.

Read the post. It’s about seeing which student to student connections are there and seeing which student to student connections are NOT there. I saw it a while ago, and it does really connect to this connections puzzle.

So, what am I going to do about this? Well, first off, I am definitely going to do some conversation mapping of my own classes. In particular I am going to try to do this when we talk about non-controversial topics and then more controversial ones. I suspect there will be plenty to think about with that. Second, I am going to talk to a group within my school who was doing research on sociocultural identifiers and their connection to a lot of things. I think combining this with classroom conversation maps could be really interesting and important. Of course, all of this will take time, lots of time. I’m still looking for that extra hour in my day. I think it’s hiding with the cleaning fairy.

Oooh, I am so excited about this, which meant I had to talk about it. the first victims lucky winners to hear about these ideas were some colleagues at lunch on that very day.

Who should I talk to next?

CCO public domain image from

CCO public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about my new-to-me senior elective for the fall (Good Reads). I know it is barely summer, and I haven’t even finished thinking and reflecting on my classes from the year, but although I picked the books, I have never taught any of them and I had a hard time picking a group that had some connection. I am a little anxious that the connections won’t hold up or work.

I sat down the other day to plan out my assessment overview. I had already loosely planned out the timing of the books because I had to be sure that I could fit them into a single semester. So, I have some assessment ideas, but as I thought about it later, I realized that they were assessment activities, things to put on a calendar, more than anything else. My plan evenly distributed big and small assignments, balanced them in the proportions I need, and included a range of assignment formats and types. All good. What my assessment plan did not do was reference the essential questions and ideas of the course. Partly that’s because I have not planned the actual prompts for some of the assessments yet. However, in comparing that to the assessments I had planned for my courses last year (Truth and Fiction and YA Literature), I was not impressed with myself. Last year, I had big, ambitious goals for final synthetic pieces that would tie all sorts of things together. Mostly these ideas were a little too big, no surprise there, but having them in mind meant that I also had in mind something to build to with other work, and this is what I realized I was missing.

Then, for some reason I woke up in the morning thinking about charts and infographics. Now, I love a good infographic; I used to have my 5th graders make webs of things all the time. Yes, it is possible to express those same ideas and connections in writing, but probably not if you are 10 years old, and honestly maybe not even if you are 17 or 18 years old. One of the things that a well done web, chart, infographic allows the creator to do is show lots of related information visually without having to pick an order in which to tell the viewer about this in words. It can show connections that the chart maker might not quite be able to verbalize in a way that relates to everything else, and connections that might be tangential such that they would not warrant a mention if they had to relate to a paper, but are there. (Even in this short post, there are numerous side branches that I have pruned in writing that I would have left in a chart or infographic.) Plus, the visual thinkers are often great at them. I still think about a 5th grader in my first class who was a great field athlete (lacrosse in particular) who made several amazing webs of Greek myths that demonstrated how deeply he saw the connections between and among the characters and events of the story. I have since referred to is as “seeing the field” in his honor and because I think that is what he was able to do. There were other “stronger” readers who made very straight forward flow charts of the events in the story, but his chart showed much more about the complicated web that is Greek myth. (That little 10 year old is now a young man and probably just finished his junior year in college.) Sorry for that digression.

Back to the topic here. SO, I have always been a fan of making thinking visible, both the idea (before it was also a book) and the book. So, I’m thinking about charts and the title of the class, and a blog post by @dogtrax about connections. I often have a lot of somewhat unrelated ideas swirling around in my head that ultimately come together into something that makes sense to me anyway. Once it’s come together, the initial, disparate ideas are more just blips along the thinking path, but I like to remember and trace my connecting process. Plus, I usually feel very satisfied once I’ve wrangled those ideas into something sensical, and it is just interesting to me to ponder individual creative process. I honestly believe one can practice and create the conditions for inspiration. In this case, I thought in particular about the charts in magazines that take events in a city and rate them according to some amusing and unusual factor.

This lead me to think about the characteristics of a good read. I have put a couple of potential characteristics that one might consider in my summer reading questions. But I wanted more than a single quality. How many qualities could I get on one chart? What if I moved to 3 dimensions? How might I incorporate this sort of thinking throughout the course so that students become familiar with the process without it taking over? Last fall, I wanted students to think about the interconnected ways that the individual pieces of narrative in SlaughterhouseFive connected. And after seeing an exhibit of student art work at PAFA, I shared a student work with them. Then we went about creating something inspired by it that connected ideas in particular passages. I wrote about it at the time. I was too much at once, but had I structured it differently, it could have been more successful. An idea worth keeping in mind.

And just like that, an idea came together. It’s not even clear in my head yet, but I know it just needs some massaging, that the pieces are there. I don’t know why I know this, and there is no guarantee that it will work, but I know that I don’t need new pieces; I can stop collecting. Here are the basics:

  • Begin by looking at some of the potential qualities of a good read that I proposed in relation to our summer reading book (Kontiki by Thor Heyerdahl).
  • Break those qualities down into some smaller parts
  • Make some sort of graph or chart of how students see the book across those qualities
  • Add qualities as the semester progresses
  • Chart those for each book, reflecting back on earlier reads as well (good for keeping them in mind).
  • Some sort of synthesized final chart–maybe students choose 3-4 of the qualities that they think are the most important for their idea of a good read and figure out a way to make 1 chart that combines this.

I guess this post is really about two things. One, my reflection of the incompleteness of my assessment planning and the need for more attention to the essential questions of the course. And two, the way ideas spring into my head, but are really the result of collecting, curating (this is such a trendy word, I hate to use it, but anyway…), and ultimately mashing things together in a way that the pieces click into place as if they were meant to be together. I know that for meI have to do something with the things I notice (to use @Dogtrax’s term) in order for them to become part of the collection of random flotsam and jetsam that floats around in my head. Once those noticings have make it into the more permanent collection, I have them at my disposal–I can call them up to admire them again, I can try them out in some new combinations, and ultimately I can remix them with other ideas so that they become mine.

Is that how other people work?

So, I’ve been thinking about Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I am teaching a senior English elective called Truth and Fiction, and Slaughterhouse-Five is our first book.

When I was talking with the class, preparing them to read the first chapter, I of course mentioned that this is not a linear story. Some students spoke up right away to say that they found this type of narrative hard to follow. It is handy that Mr. Vonnegut put in ” *  *  *” between sections; however, I wanted the students to be able to see the big ideas being carried through these non-linear vignettes. Also, I am a fan of diagrams, charts, color coding, and other Making Thinking Visible ideas. Finally, I thought about a piece of art that I saw at the Student Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in June.


I shared this image with the class because I think it is an interesting visual, but also because I think it is so neatly organized and effectively shows complexity, connections, and organization all in one. My thought was that we would create something similar from the first chapter.

The first chapter is 28 pages and has 22 little sections ranging in length from a brief paragraph to several pages. I copied all the text and cut and taped it into sections. Each section went on a 11×17 piece of paper and students annotated the sections, highlighted key text, and thought about themes. Then, we spread out the sheets in order, took string and used it to show when particular themes appeared. Here’s what we came up with.

S5 ch1 copy

It could be neater.

I think what I wanted to show was that even in this choppy, nonlinear narrative, there were themes and big ideas emerging.

This task could definitely use some improvement. I did something similar on a smaller scale when my 5th graders read Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit. It that case, we had only 3 story lines we were following and for each chapter we either put the string that represented the story line on top of our little card or behind it. Ultimately we had a row of 25 slips of paper/chapters with the 3 strings going in and out, in front and behind, to show which story line was “in the spot light” in that chapter. For those 5th graders, it was important to represent visually that the other story line(s) had not disappeared; they were simply not our focus. For seniors discussing themes, the task was more complex, as it should be. A couple of things were not necessarily perfect about this iteration of the task. First, there were a lot of little pieces to deal with all at once and yet, we have only read the first chapter. Second, while I wanted us to start with this task for some legitimate reasons, it might also be something that would be better if started midway through the book. In this version, we used all the text. However, what if we started midway through, after having a sense of what ideas we really want to follow, and were more selective in terms of the pieces of text that we pulled out? I suspect we would be better able to see connections between and among sections as well as themes.

Ooooh, what if when we get to the end and students are writing an analytical paper, they make a visual representation of their thoughts before they begin to write? Is this too abstract for the non-visual learner? Thoughts?