Sitting on a plane headed back home to DC after a five-day stay in Memphis, I’m feeling tired, lucky, rejuvenated, and refocused. My brain and body are exhausted from our daily input-output-repeat cycle, yet in the gut of my fatigue I feel an excitement that I know stems from my certainty that I am in the right place at the right time, bouncing between the company of the best people on earth: old friends, new friends, PZ faculty, adult learners, student learners, colleagues, and (my favorite) those who are a little bit of each. These past few days have been a whirlwind of rehabilitation we teachers so desperately need each February, and I am beside myself with gratitude for having been a part of it all. I’m headed back to my school, Sacred Heart, with a restored sense of energy I’m sure will annoy my middle schoolers to no end. I can’t wait.
Jodi Bossio, our Education Specialist and my former mentor, and I boarded a plane to Memphis early Wednesday morning to attend the Project Zero Perspectives: Where Does Thinking Thrive? Conference, a three day event hosted by the Presbyterian Day School (with a lot of help from CASIE) in Memphis, Tennessee. With our most cowboy-esque boots packed, we made our way to the conference, eager to present our most recent project, A Beautiful Mess, to all those willing to listen. The conference was attended by over 700 enthusiastic participants from all over the world. From the conclusion of the very first plenary session, the buzz of ideas exchanging and evolving filled the air with that unnamed energy unique to Project Zero. It was incredible and fueled my excitement as my presentation with Jodi approached.
A Beautiful Mess was born from a conversation Jodi and I had just a few months ago. We were reflecting on what our next steps as educators should be once we have made Thinking Routines a norm within our classroom cultures. Thinking of the disarray that my classroom is left in after my learners’ artistic ventures in Visible Thinking, Jodi and I began joking about the idea of messes being beautiful. My classroom is the perfect example of just this: a mess as the product of critical, meaningful, perseverant, beautiful thinking. Now the question has become what to do with this mess. After the paintbrushes are cleaned and the tables wiped down, there is still a much more important job we’re responsible for: detangling the students’ work, observing their thinking, and allowing it all to navigate our academic next steps. How do we as educators balance our responsibility of authentically considering our students’ thinking with our responsibility of hitting our academic objectives? Jodi and I have been exploring our understanding of this question ever since. A Beautiful Mess has simply been our way of documenting our journey while inviting our participants s to investigate their understanding of this balance within their own classrooms.
Visible Thinking was a new concept to some of our participants. We introduced (or reviewed for some) CSI as a routine that they could use to access their students’ thinking. We then invited them to create one of their own based on Charles Bukowski’s poem, “A Song With No End”. Jodi projected the lines as two volunteers read the cryptic poem aloud. Without discussion, they were asked to jump right into creating their independent CSI. After all, Thinking Routines are best understood when grappled with first-hand.
Some participants confidently began recording their ideas, some took awhile to get started, some looked around the room uneasily, some giggled, some were stoic, some immediately reached for the markers… most were a mix of each. After settling into the process, everyone seemed to relax and quiet down. Then, we had them pair up and share their work with partners.
Sharing out with partners
The next challenge was to report out to the whole group. The catch? Don’t share your own work. Share what your partner described in their process. (Note: As adults, we often approach situations with the false assumption that everyone is born a great listener or that we all communicate in the same way. It’s a constant source of frustration and tension. However, listening is a skill that must be learned. Educators have the responsibility of slowing down and allowing their learners to develop this skill. Good luck trying it with adults.)
Later on in our presentation, I turn to a video taken in my 8th grade class just a few days before I flew to Memphis. Using a 55 minute Language Arts period for this experiment, I told my students that I would be giving them a poem and their job was simple: use the Thinking Routine CSI to make their thinking visible. Sound familiar?
Students first annotated the poem with personal connections and questions to anchor it into context.
In small groups, students were given a copy of the poem, printer paper, and various art supplies. The title and poet’s name were intentionally removed to prevent any unwanted bias going into the reading (it should also be mentioned that we did the same at PZME). Removing the text from its context was frustrating and disorienting for many of my 8th graders. They soon realized that they would have to construct context on their own.
It was fascinating to see how my students grappled with this text. Some sat silently frustrated, some engaged peers in dynamic discussions, all wrestled with making their own connections. In order for people to make sense of a text and develop an appreciation for it, they must first connect to it’s message, diction, or tone. Narcissistic? Maybe. But it’s true: things in this world only make sense within the context of how they directly relate to us, and reading is no exception. I loved seeing one table of students collaborate in critical conversation and annotation just as much as I loved seeing one student construct his own context of the poem by giving it a thoughtful, revealing title. The variety of strategies told me a lot about my students as perseverant thinkers.
When our CSI experiment was over and done with, our learning continued. I was able to look at their work to gain insight into their thinking: where they are now and where they need to go from here. Considering areas in which they excelled and struggled, I realigned my lesson plans to target various writing, grammar, and critical thinking standards. However, I also got to go beyond the standards. I left class that day carrying glimpses of my learners’ interests, ideas, and wonders. As I revised my lessons, I used each as a vehicle for their overall understanding and mastery of the learning objectives. We used a Walt Whitman poem to further our investigation into the themes of pride and freedom. We had a class debate on the definition of personification. We explored perspectives by deepening the connection to Social Studies class. The sense of ownership my learners had over our Language Arts studies skyrocketed: knowing that their ideas had been heard and their thinking seen, they forged ahead with excitement and confidence.
The similarities of my middle school students’ CSI process to that of our PZME participants is striking and, in some cases, comical. Phrases like, “I’m not an artist!” and “I don’t get it!” transcend the generation gap, as do the collective moans of hesitation when asked to share another person’s ideas (evidently, listening is a huge point of insecurity for most of us – myself included). The similarities between their own CSI experience and that of my students were not lost on our participants. In a final reflection, our participants shared out their ‘take aways’: feeling confident about trying CSI in their classroom, remembering to slow down and consider their students’ learning, reflecting on the importance of using student thinking to navigate their studies… The list was impressive, insightful, and moving.
I left our presentation with a myriad of new take aways myself. From the power of independent thinking to the necessity of collaborative reflection, each realization served as a unique reminder of our incredible responsibilities as educators to slow down, think, and listen to our students and each other.
Jodi, Jim, me, and Elise
Partners in Crime
The cast and crowd of PZME 2014
Time to start the show!
Some of our amazing participants
Yes, I will be your Valentine!
Reflecting on our thinking
Art Mola, our principal, joins in the conversation
The PDS all boys choir
Taking time to collaborate
Sharing out with partners
Another collaborative conversation
Sharing our partners’ ideas
Ready and willing