Cultures of thinking

One of the things I really like about SPELTAC is that blogging is a great way to reflect on one’s teaching. Another school year has started with new students and classes. One of my objectives during this period is setting up the routines and culture of learning I want my students to be in. Walk around any school corridor at the beginning of semester 1 and you will see teachers setting rules and expectations for the years learning to be hopefully successful. To challenge myself a little, I set myself a speaking to the class or lecturing time limit of 8 minutes out of 65. This means that although I will speak to groups and individuals throughout the class, I want my explanations or whole class teacher talk to be no more than 8 minutes long. I asked my students to time this to make it a communal challenge. It will be interesting to see if I can achieve this regularly!

Following on from my “Making Thinking Visible” PD the group of teachers I did the course with decided to go a step further and do the course: “Creating Cultures of Thinking” by Ron Ritchhart, also a Project Zero related PD from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reading the book over the summer I discovered some great ideas to start of the year with 2 grade 9 English Literature classes I teach. Both classes have ELLs as well as Learning Support students and a wide range of levels form intermediate to native. The term differentiate comes to mind as some students will find “Animal farm”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “A midsummer nights dream” tough novels to read. How can I keep them all engaged at their varied levels of understanding?

Ron Ritchhart’s suggested 8 forces to master to truly transform our schools has been fascinating inspiration and motivated me to set some standards and ideas for my classes and thus slowly creating a culture of thinking from the very start of the year. I could waffle on endlessly about Ron and his forces but this blog is about how some principles, strategies and ideas mentioned in the book are helping me create a classroom where I facilitate and guide while we are all engaged in a journey of learning together. Sure, I lead (at times) and decide how the time is spent but what I choose for us to do is done together as a community to learn.

The school I am currently at would need to be totally redesigned from scratch if it was to model all the forces Ron Ritchhart suggests to create a 21st century learning environment. Just as he quite fairly argues, for most teachers and schools you have to start off small, let the culture grow and maybe, eventually we’ll get there, but it’s not something that changes overnight! My list of inconveniences would be quite long as the classroom as a learning environment is not perfect, neither are the desks, schedules, curriculum, and so on, but there are still many things I can do. If my students are engaged and challenged adequately, there is potential to learn positively.

In “Creating Cultures of Thinking” many ideas are explained through case studies and classroom observations. One of the ideas I loved and used in a first class with students (and which will also be repeated throughout the whole year) is the following short slide show which I combined with the Thinking Routine “See-Think-Wonder”. As mentioned in the case study, I showed a picture of a teacher lecturing and through a discussion of “Seeing”, then “Thinking and Wondering” the students came to the conclusion it represented “lecturing”; I told them I did not do that. Next there was an image of a spoon referring to “spoon feeding” which created another interesting discussion amongst students.  This is how I went through a bunch of slides which raised awareness in the group about how WE would spend time together and learn. Another image was a skydiver or the fairy-god-mother from The wizard of OZ. Discussing how these images related to our English literature class really got students thinking. The other objective with this activity was to present and introduce thinking routines as a tool for our learning.

Earlier on I mentioned “differentiating” being a massive must in the classes and thinking routines allow for students to think at their level. Using “we” to refer to the class rather than me and them is another minor detail that is extremely powerful. The first classes have been all about sending the message that we are one community. Harvard’s Project Zero team have many more suggestions as to how to communicate, also emphasizing on the importance of listening or phrasing questions or statements to engage or question rather than cut a students thinking. The most obvious and best example is: “What makes you say that?”

Finally as my liking for Connect-Extend-Challenge is growing, I also introduced this routine in a class where WE watched RSA Animate: Changing Education Paradigms . To my surprise it was ELL’s who shared more ideas and thoughts than some other “classic” high achievers, clearly because the environment and structure of the routine gave them the time to manage and process their thoughts better. Whereas one group of three boys, none of whom are EAL found “extend” and “challenge” very hard as the Thinking Routine had put them in unknown territory. Could it be they were used to being spoon fed? All in all for me the challenge of these first weeks is not to rush into content but set habits, routines and expectations in the classroom that invite students to feel comfortable, gain confidence and enjoy the journey through novels, poetry and literature that we have just started. The last activity students did was write a headline about the class, a great way to round off and get them to reflect.

And to complete a full circle, this blog allowed me to reflect on the first week of classes, students and my teaching. Thanks SPELTAC!

 

Author: Niels Zwart

Living in Rabat, Morocco. Also lived in The Netherlands, UK, Spain and China. EAL in Secondary, English Literature, Social Studies, IBDP Spanish ab initio. Family man, music, reading, cooking and eating, tennis and table tennis, and traveling.

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