January 12, 2014

Unscrewing Our Thinking Caps

Aside from being a teacher and literacy coach, I have also coached volleyball, basketball, and track at the middle school level.  When I think back to the times of coaching a sport, I explicitly remember teaching my athletes by modeling.  As I teach them to do an overhand serve in volleyball, I do an overhand serve, stating the different steps that need to be taken in order to make the serve possible.  It is tangible and logical while coaching a sport to model a skill by showing athletes exactly what it would look like.  Some volleyball players were already skilled in overhand serving, some needed a little extra guidance before they were able to pick it up, and still others were not able to catch on and had to keep underhand serving in order to get the ball over the net.  It sounds a little bit like what we would see in our classroom everyday, correct?  The only problem is, in volleyball, I have an easy way to model and differentiate my coaching to the different members of my team.  However, in my classroom, it isn't always that easy.

Why is that?  I have come to believe that a big reason for this is because in a classroom, we are teaching readers and writers how to think.  Modeling thinking is quite different than throwing a ball up in the air and serving it over the net.  Modeling thinking may even seem a bit unnatural and silly at first.  So here's the ultimate question: how do I model my thinking for students?  In my opinion, this is the largest piece that is missed by teachers in classrooms.  We may even think we are modeling our thinking when in reality, we are simply giving directions for how to do a task.  We tell students, we write directions on the board, on worksheets, we repeat ourselves over and over, and then we inevitably complain when our students aren't able to get the work done how we visualized it should be.   A critical step that is missed between giving directions and expecting students to be able to apply those directions to a task is modeling our thinking.  It is our responsibility to speak the little voice that happens inside of our heads out loud so that the same voice can become the voice inside students' heads.  Modeling thinking will create students who are problem solvers.  It is also a key step in the gradual release of responsibility that we should all be infusing into our classrooms, regardless of our students' ages.

Here are some steps to take in order to open up your thinking in your classroom:

1.  Think backwards.  Whatever you are going to ask students to do during the application phase of your minilesson, think about how you would model the thinking involved in order to be able to complete that application.

2.  Create the end result.  Say I am doing a reading minilesson such as, "Readers notice what a character says in dialogue so that they are able to learn more about that character through his/her words."  During the application of this minilesson, I would ask my students to notice and jot down a piece of dialogue in their independent reading books and infer what that dialogue reveals about the character's personality, though processes, relationships, etc.  So in order to model this for my students, I would need to prepare what this would look like using a common text from an interactive read aloud we've shared as a class.  Another option would be to have the piece of dialogue ready and do a shared writing of the application with the class.

3.  Don't stop there.  It is such a support to have the end result right in front of students so that they can see what it could look like, but don't just show it and say, now do it.  Open up your mind to students. I would share things like:
-What was I thinking when I selected the quote from the story.
-What did I already know from the story about the character?
-What were some inferences that I made about the character based on the quote?
-Why did I think this was a good inference?  What were other possibilities that I considered?
-How does making inferences using dialogue throughout the story about characters help me as a reader?

4.  Scaffold the learning experience.  Next, give students a chance to try out this new approach to thinking that you have just modeled for them in a supported environment.  Using your interactive read aloud text, select another quote from a new character and ask students to turn and talk with a partner about what they can infer based on this piece of dialogue.  Walk around the room and listen in on conversations to see if students are applying similar thinking concepts in order to come up with logical inferences.  You have now gradually released responsibility onto them without fully putting the task in their court before they're ready for it.

5.  Application.  At the end of your minilesson, have student independently take on the learning and look for dialogue in their own independent reading books and make inferences about the characters based on that dialogue.  They have had two supported experiences before you're asking them to take on the independent learning.

6.  Share.  After students have had time to work independently, gather back together as a whole class and have students share out their responses.  The share portion of a minilesson is a time for celebration to give students positive feedback for the work and thinking they have completed.  It's also a time that is very supportive for a student who may not have been able to fully apply the minilesson.  Hearing his//her classmates share our their thinking may give that student the extra boost he/she needed to complete the minilesson.  The share portion of a minilesson is also a perfect time for formative assessment to see who is and isn't "getting it."  I sometimes have my students get into a big circle and quickly share out their application.  If I notice a few students who did not get the application done, I'll keep them after class and ask:
-What prevented you from getting the minilesson done?
-How can I support you in being able to get the minilesson done?

So when you get gut-level honest with yourself, how often do you fully support your students in modeling your thought process and giving them a supported chance to try it out before asking them do complete a task?  I guarantee that the modeling will get more and more natural each time, and you will have more students attempting to work independently.  When students see their teacher as a learner too who has to think in order to accomplish something, they relate to the application a lot more and see it as a worthy learning endeavor.   Most importantly though, when they're working through something as a reader or writer and don't know what to do, that voice that turns on might not be telling them to just give up.  Instead, they may hear you and the questions that go on inside your head when problem solving.

On a side note, if you like my blog, go like my Facebook page: My Facebook Page.

Also, I am planning on starting new novel units for my TpT store similar to my Tuck Everlasting Unit.  Which novel would you like to see me do first:

-The Giver
-Out of the Dust
-The Hunger Games
-Charlotte's Web
-The Fault in our Stars

I would LOVE your feedback and/or comments about this blog post! :)


  1. This is such a concrete way of thinking about modeling and the importance for our students...Love it! Thanks, Kasey!

    1. Thanks, Jess! And thank you for the many conversations you have had with me to help understand this better! :)

  2. Please create your next novel unit for Wonder!

    1. I will definitely consider Wonder. It was on the top of my list. :)

  3. Great thinking :-) I admit, I do think I sound silly doing my think alouds, but they are needed! I'd love to see The Giver . . . did you see it's going to be a movie this year?! Also, I like you on FB . . . would love if you returned the favor: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jamie-Ayres-Author/191999830942546?ref=hl

    1. Isn't it ridiculous how silly we probably look the entire day when in reality, teaching is all about just letting go and not worrying about "looking dumb." I did see that they were FINALLY coming out with a movie for The Giver. That is one of my all-time favorites and definitely on my short list. I'm on my way to liking your FB page! :) Thanks for your comments!!

  4. omg Kasey - Gradual Release of Responsiblity. I don't know how I got out of undergrad without knowing this forward and backward. As a coach, I see the modeling and guided practice being missed quite frequently. I always tell myself, "If my students are asking 100 questions, I obviously didn't model and guide enough." Great reminder for all of us!

    I'm not teaching middle school anymore, but my fave book *ever* is The Giver! I'm currently writing something up for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane....have you read it? It's kind of lower - like maybe 4th grade level, but the message and the journey the main character goes on - Brilliant. You should read it if you haven't yet! :-)

    1. Michelle! I completely agree. This is something I feel like they PROBABLY taught in college, but it is not something that sticks out and that stuck with me so learning this while taking classes for my literacy coach certification really is making it now stick. It really can be applied to anything, and I agree that as a coach, this is probably the number one thing to coach around to improve student learning.

      I haven't read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, but it sounds like a great option to read and maybe even use with some of my lower guided reading groups. Thanks for the suggestion! I have begun to work on my next novel unit, and it is The Giver. It's definitely one of my all-time favorites as well! :)

  5. Excellent post! I retweeted to my followers.

    1. Thanks so much, Brandi! I appreciate you sharing on Twitter as well! :)

  6. Kasey,

    I have been working on modelling thinking aloud for my AP students; however, I really like how you clearly articulated the process in your blog. The high school staff just read the chapter on meta-cognition - thinking about thinking - so we've been having interesting conversations about this topic as well.

    Some kids who "do school well" and in the traditional way do not appreciate teachers making them think. However, I just had a breakthrough moment with my students. The AP kids were discussing "Beloved" by Toni Morrison. The conversation got deep and powerful. I was able to sit back and just listen to the ideas shoot across the room. I witnessed the students' deep thinking, without participating myself. Just as both class and the discussion were winding down, a student asked, "You aren't going to tell us the right answer, are you?" Now the focus was back on me, and I admitted there was no right answer. For it was within the discussion itself that we all gain (aka - Socratic Seminars). I got my final comment out, but I almost got a little choked-up saying it: "It took you all term, but today some of you finally found your voices. Continue to find your voices - without relying on the teacher's." Really cool moment for me.

    1. Hi Amy,

      Thanks so much for sharing this moment you had with your AP class. Sometimes I think people perceive modeling thinking is only for elementary aged students, and it is so awesome that you're doing this for seniors as well. The truth this, ALL students can benefit from this scaffold. It is so powerful when students find their own voices and you can sit back and just listen to their deep thinking. I'm excited to chat with you more about the high school staff taking on this topic as well! Thanks for your comments! :)


  7. I am reading Wonder right now with a group of 7th and 8th graders who are struggling with comprehension skills. I would love to see a unit on this fabulous book!

    1. Thanks so much for your input, Lori! Wonder is definitely on my short list for books to do next! It is quite fabulous... :)


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