Back in the Game

As it turns out, I am terrible at updating this blog.  Should have seen that coming!  Nonetheless, I’ve promised myself to get back into the game and face the one big, overwhelming question that looms over me whenever I sit down to report out:  how can I accurately and justly put the awesomeness of my kids’ thinking into words?!  It’s hard.  It’s more than hard… it’s scary because I want to do them justice and I worry that I can’t.  For every detail I recall here, I feel enormous guilt for the thoughts that fall through the cracks, the voices that go unheard, and the perspectives yet to be explored.

My solution?  Don’t have one.  But, I’m beginning to be OK with that.

As I grapple with my responsibilities as one voice of my learners, I figure that the kids’ learning can speak for itself.  Maybe it’s really as simple as that?  It’s a place to start, that’s for sure.  And that’s something I always owe to my learners: a platform, a place, a safe space where we can start thinking, rethinking, and growing.  For now on, this will be just another one of those spaces.

Kullberg’s BACK!

A Beautiful Mess: Where Thinking Routines and Culture of Thinking Collide

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.

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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

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.

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.

DCPZ: Uniting DC Teachers with Project Zero Ideas

Overlooking our amazing city.

DCPZ reception at the Chamber of Commerce:  Overlooking our amazing city!

This past week held multiple events hosted by DCPZ, a group started by Jim Reese from Washington International School (WIS) focused on furthering our experience and understanding of Project Zero ideas.   In short, it’s exactly what our DC area educators need.

DCPZ was born at the Project Zero Classroom Summer Institute two years ago when Jim invited DC area teachers to gather after our last mini course of the day.   Walking into the meeting room, I wasn’t sure what to expect or what would come of it.  I’ve always loved the idea of educator collaboration “back home” after leaving PZ, but I suppose years of failed attempts had left me a little jaded.  As soon as I pulled up my chair to join the group, I knew that this was going to be a different story.  I knew that I would be seeing these people again:  sharing ideas, collaborating on projects, seeking feedback on my practice, providing feedback on theirs…  My immediate thought was, Kristen.  FOCUS.  Start memorizing names and faces… preferably those that go together.

I’m still working on that last part.  (Why is that so hard?!!)

DCPZ at the National Gallery:  "I see, I think, I wonder"

DCPZ at the National Gallery: “I see, I think, I wonder”

After that evening gathering, DCPZ was founded and immediately put into action.  Within weeks we’d all be receiving an email from Jim welcoming us to the group.  Shortly after, another email would arrive announcing the first event.  In the months to follow, we would all gather at the National Gallery of Art, WIS,  Sidwell Friends, the Imagination Stage, and other local, beautiful locations each

Investigating artist intent and practicing Thinking Routines at the National Gallery

Investigating artist intent and practicing Thinking Routines at the National Gallery

offering their own provocative topic of inquiry.  We’d look at student imagination and the cultivation of student creativity, examine the successes of international education practices, and experiment with protocols calling for a closer look into student work.  Each event was attended by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed participants, ready to explore better teaching practices even at the conclusion of a strenuous work day.  The thing about DCPZ is that it doesn’t feel like work… it doesn’t feel like something I should go to (like that ominous HSA meeting or over-booked New York Times Best Seller author lecture).  Instead, each event reinvigorates me as a teacher, learner, and member of the community.   Every moment is spent feeling enriched and engaged:  validated with the reassurance that we are making great strides in education and ready to tackle the great strides that still need to be taken.

I leave feeling heard.

Ben and Mara's must read.

Ben and Mara’s must read

I never knew how rare that feeling was until I got back into my car after one of the three DCPZ events this past week.  I had the opportunity to join a small group of educators and researchers asked to provide feedback on the most recent research proposal by Ben Mardell and Mara Krechevsky (co-authors of Visible Learners:  Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools).

Sitting with these incredible minds couldhave been intimidating (But I’m just a teacher – I’m not a professor or researcher or Harvard brainiac… If I say something, they’ll know I’m not up to their caliber…).  Lucky for me, these particular incredible minds are incredibly welcoming, humble, receptive, and engaged.  Their authority established a sense of connectedness among all those present instead of the more familiar professor-student rift.   Sitting at that round table, hearing their ideas, answering their questions, rethinking assumptions, building off of each other… we were all key players in the conversation.  I felt, for the first time in longer than I like to admit, heard.  My big take away?  As a practitioner, I have invaluable insight into these Project Zero ideas and Thinking Routines because I use them on a daily basis in my classroom.  As teachers, we’re the ones experimenting with these tools in the trenches.  We’re the ones seeing the extraordinary benefits brought to our students.  We’re the ones left sitting at a student’s desk in an empty room thinking Well…. that flopped.  Let’s rethink it and try it again tomorrow.  Sharing these insight and experiences is absolutely imperative.  This realization has left me feeling empowered and yet humbled by the extraordinary power of authentic collaboration, which brings me to the moment of me sitting in my car after the meeting with Ben and Mara.

Buckling my seatbelt and reversing out of the WIS parking lot, I was hit with a multitude of emotions, but none as strong as gratitude.  Life moves so quickly.  One of the best things in this world is to slow down and realize how thankful you are for everything around you: the people, the ideas, and all that is to come.

For more information on upcoming DCPZ events, click here.


Compass Points

When approaching a new topic in class, learners often feel a sense of uncertainty.  Sometimes ‘the unknown’ can infuse excitement into learning.  Sometimes it can create a feeling of anxiety.  More often than not, we will experience something in between.

Kids aren’t the only ones subject to worry and enthusiasm in the face of new challenges.  As we all know (probably too well), adults combat these tensions just as often.  And teachers are no exception.

I had a fitful night’s sleep on the eve of our teachers’ return to school.  With almost a decade of first-day-of-school experience under my belt, I still found myself tossing and turning, obsessively checking my alarm clock, and second-guessing my preparedness.  My jumbled thoughts leapt from I can’t wait to meet new faces!  I can’t wait to greet familiar ones!  I just can’t wait to TEACH again! to No… I’m not ready.  I can’t do this.  I gave up on early mornings in June.  I’m already stressing about whether or not the internet will work in my classroom.   I did not sleep well: a quality I shared with many of my colleagues.

Luckily, my coworker and former mentor, Jodi Bossio, anticipated these tensions and planned accordingly.  She lead us in an activity called Compass Points in which we were asked to identify our needs, expectations, suggestions, and worries as we all transitioned back into our roles as teachers instead of beach bums.  We worked in small groups, recording our individual answers on Post-It notes before sharing with our groupmates.   The compass template is simple:  record what needs you have under the N that typically represents north.  For east’s E, record any expectations or feelings of excitement you may have.  For south’s S, record any suggestions.  Lastly, for west’s w, record your worries.

photo 1 (30)Once all of our group member’s added their Post-Its to our compass visual, we shared our ideas and started to make connections.  Notice that some group members recorded their ideas with words and some with drawings.  This is an easy accommodation to offer (and I’ve found it to work extremely well for English language learners).  Using a blue crayon, our group drew connections between our individual needs and noticed two recurring themes.  First, we realized that we all needed balance.  For some this meant maintaining a balance between work and home life.  For others it meant creating lessons that effectively balance Spanish and English (a necessity for any successful bilingual school like ours).  For others still it meant determining how to balance two roles within the school (in my case, teaching middle school Language Arts and also stepping into the role of Arts Integration Instructional Coach).   Regardless of what we’re balancing, we all share this need for a sense of strong equilibrium in our lives.  Second, we saw that we are still grappling with the age-old teacher dilemma of resources and supplies.  The problem?  No matter how much we have, we always want – and need – more.

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After each of our small groups reported out to the whole group, we felt content knowing that our ideas had been given a voice.  Just like our learners, once our needs are heard, they no longer seem threatening or anxiety provoking.  Instead, they become part of our shared experience;  they are commonalities we share and navigate through together.

Sure enough, our students joined us at school one week later and many teachers followed Jodi’s lead, using Compass Points in their first homeroom.  Students were immediately engaged, feeling ownership over the student centered activity as well as a sense of community and connectedness with their classmates.  They felt that their voice was not only encouraged but that it counted and influenced the development of their classroom culture.

4th grade adapted the original template to use in Spanish.  They created their own class Compass Points and have proudly published it in their hall for all of us to admire.

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4th graders voice their needs at the very beginning of the school year.

4th graders voice their needs at the very beginning of the school year.

With this simple exercise, the teacher gained priceless insight into her learners from the get go.  She now knows that Eric felt overwhelmed by last year’s homework load and Ricardo didn’t come to school with supplies.  Cindy hopes to grow more this year while Briana is eagerly awaiting more music classes.  Many students suggest a wider variety of clubs and even more students are worried about not understanding their new 4th grade material.  With these ideas in mind, the teacher can be sure to address each child’s needs as lesson plans are inevitably revised.  Compass Points also offers a healthy dose of teacher “with-it-ness” (Kounin 1970):  the ability for a teacher to know what’s going on in their classroom at all times and from various perspectives.

Alternatively, teachers can use Compass Points to pre-assess individual students’ understanding of academic topics.  For example, I will have my 8th graders complete their own Compass Points worksheet on the first day of our Types of Narration unit.  It will be hugely valuable for me to gage each learner’s academic knowledge of narration at the onset of this unit.  However, I will also be gaining much more:  I will hear their suggestions, worries, and expectations:  all pieces of information that will help me better accommodate them as learners.

From educators recording their suggestions for the administration to students revealing their prior knowledge of a topic, the use of Compass Points is bound to lead to fruitful conversations and relatable, rigorous lesson planning.  Use this navigational tool to guide your learners to deeper, more meaningful understanding of any area of study.

Using CSI in the Classroom

One Thinking Routine I often use in class is Color, Symbol, Image (CSI).  This exercise asks learners to determine a color, symbol, and image that “captures the essence of an idea” (Ritchhart, Church, Morrison).  In middle school Language Arts, we use the CSI template to explore the tone, main ideas and themes, as well as key scenes in a text.  We use it as everything from formative assessment of reading comprehension to a quick, informal inventory of student engagement or emotional reaction to a current event or personal experience.

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This poster hangs on the wall of my Language Arts classroom and serves as a guide for my learners. The sentence starters (underlines in yellow) help my writers justify their artistic choices.

Just as I adapted this routine to fit my classroom needs, this exercise can work for all ages and disciplines.  After I shared a CSI PowerPoint with my colleagues, our very brave kindergartner teacher, Ms. Alison, used it in her classroom after a group reading of a book about penguins.  Her cuties dominated this thinking routine and proved that not only are penguins AWESOME, but that the brilliant simplicity of a CSI can offer all learners access to deeper understanding of complex academic concepts.

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“Penguins are black. Penguins lay eggs. Penguins survive in the cold.”

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“King penguins…(????).  How penguins slide on their bellies.  How the humans catch penguins (in fishing nets).”

Ms. Alison’s kindergartners were able to demonstrate their understanding of their new penguin friends by using their own version of CSI.  If a learner had trouble writing their ideas down, they could verbally explain their artistic choices to their peers and teachers.  This routine provides learners with an opportunity to voice their personal ideas and “take aways” from a text; it makes their thinking visible.  A more advanced CSI Template can be used in the upper grades and tweaked as needed.

My 8th graders created a CSI as a warm up in class after completing an independent reading assignment for homework the evening before.   This exercise took just under 5 minutes and provided my students with fruitful discussion topics as well as showed me who understood the reading and who didn’t.  A learner’s CSI can illustrate not only the child’s reading comprehension, but also what they are independently gravitating towards in a text.  As a teacher, I often find myself getting wrapped up in the standards and objectives I’ve predetermined to be of utmost importance instead of letting my kids communicate alternatives areas of focus.  Seeing a learner’s CSI helps me let students contribute to our collective navigation of a text and ensure that class discussion stays relevant and engaging.  A former student did just that with a CSI she created after reading the first section of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

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This CSI reveals not only reading comprehension, but inference making as well as personal connection to the text.  This student understood the protagonist’s inner struggle and was able to identify the main event of the reading.   Prior to this activity, our class discussion had revolved heavily around analyzing the symbols in the text.  We hadn’t discussed the theme of isolation for months, since we read The Giver by Lois Lowry.  By illustrating a man stranded on an island separate from all others, this student revealed a text-to-text connection, demonstrated the skill of inference making (she determined Montague’s emotional struggle independent of my limited lesson plans), as well as gave voice to her own personal connection:  her struggle with managing the emotional process of applying to high schools.

Sometimes CSIs can be detailed and thorough.  At other times, they may seem unrefined or hurried.  This is exactly why the justification piece is so important.

Once a student turned in a CSI assigned after completing chapter 3 of The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger that looked….well, a hot mess.  I wish that I knew exactly where to find this gem, but I’ll settle for my own inadequate rendering of what I remember it to look like:

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After 20 minutes of work time, this is what was turned into me.  I took one look at it and ignorantly considered the product to be thoughtless and depthless.  I handed it back to the creator and asked him to add more details and put more thought into it.  He reacted in a way I’ll never forget:  He was adamant that his piece was complete.  His self advocacy was refreshing and unexpected.  I sat down to listen to his justification.  The color wasn’t absent unintentionally.  Instead, it was an artistic representation of the transparency the protagonist describes feeling as he fears disappearing into oblivion as he crosses the street in the first chapter.  The symbol cell illustrates the theme of social disconnectedness felt by the narrator.  He was the little speck aimlessly floating above the group of specks representing Holden’s peers.  He was apart and yet not different:  That’s why the shapes are consistent.  Lastly, the image cell shows Holden sitting in a corner thinking.  This scene stood out to my student because, to him, it represented exactly how all teens feel:  confused, negative, and stuck in their own minds.  There is no background because, at this point in the story, Holden is in transition between his boarding school and New York.  He has no setting to help define nor guide him.  Best.  CSI.  EVER.

Lesson learned:  never underestimate the value of three small sketches…. or lack there of.

Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible

When I began teaching 8 years ago, my then principal was less than impressed with my work… and very vocal about it.  I had to agree with her that my classroom management was weak, my pedagogy unrefined, and my organizational skills borderline offensive… but I found myself conflicted by her label of my students’ work as “fluff”.   She was then referring to a vocabulary exercise I had my kids complete:  they were asked to create symbols for each word that represented its definition.  The idea of using drawings in class first occurred to me when trying to reach my English language learners.  It was a simple solution to a complex problem:  if we couldn’t verbalize ideas, we could most certainly illustrate them.  The technique was quickly adopted by all my students and a new vocabulary exercise was born.

Well, born and then published on the hallway walls and then scrutinized as “fluff” by the administration.  (A soon to follow improvement plan would specify my limited use of “arts and crafts” in the classroom.)

As I took the administration’s critique into consideration, I sought help to strengthen classroom management, joined best practices discussions, and tried to keep the number of paper piles on my desk to a maximum of 45.

But my learners kept drawing.  And the drawings were mutating into full on glitter glued, bedazzled, multi colored, multi media, explosions of creativity.

The best part is that I didn’t even direct them to do so.  They had taken ownership over their own vocabulary studies and continued to do what worked best for them, and it just happened to involve the arts.

And this was only the beginning.  Art quickly became an integral part of my classroom culture and continues to be an unrivaled vehicle of learning today. The innovative, creative, and beautiful “fluff” made confidently and thoughtfully by my students outlasted the more skeptical administrations.  My students’ learning has skyrocketed and has shown no signs of tapering off.

With this pre-developed vocabulary exercise, my students were showing me the learning that was taking place.  Mastery of a vocabulary list was no longer about the regurgitation of clinical definitions but rather the ability to use, manipulate, and investigate words through the arts.  I didn’t know it then, but my students were making their thinking visible.

6 years later, I had the opportunity to attend Project Zero Classroom (PZ) where I learned from the biggest brains in the biz all about the importance of the arts in education.  On my first day attending a presentation by David Perkins and Howard Gardner, I realized that my students and I had been onto something really big that first year.  We had organically stumbled upon some of the core ideas in PZ Thinking Routines.  My days spent at PZ not only reaffirmed many ‘best practices’ understandings that my students had navigated me towards, but also opened my eyes to so many more.  The book, Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners is a must read for educators determined to offer all learners access to deeper understandings and a sense of academic ownership.


Now go out there and show those kids how to create some explorative, analytical, fruitful “fluff”!