Thinking Routines in the Classroom

Karen Voglesang on episode 209 [A special encore episode] of the 10-Minute Teacher Podcast

From the Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis

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Today Karen Voglesang @NBCTchr teaches children to use thinking routines in her classroom. After participating in Harvard’s Project Zero, she is applying and using the methods in classrooms and with teachers. Learn some thinking routines and how to apply these valuable techniques in your classroom. Karen was the 2015 Tennessee State Teacher of the Year and I interviewed her at the NNSTOY Conference in DC this summer.

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Enhanced Transcript

How to Teach Thinking Routines in the Classroom

What are thinking routines?

00:09 Vicki: Today we are with Karen Vogelsang or Ms V from Tennessee. Hey, that rhymes, that’s awesome. She was State Teacher of The Year for 2015. And I’m at the in NNSTOY Conference, that’s So thanks to NNSTOY for having me to present but also letting me talk to so many amazing teachers. Now, Karen, thinking routines are very important to you in your classroom. What are thinking routines?

00:39 Karen V: Thinking routines are really an opportunity to allow students to ask questions and really give teachers an opportunity to deepen their understanding of different content knowledge. And one of the beautiful things about thinking routines, it doesn’t matter if you’re a kindergarten teacher or a 12th grade teacher, thinking routines can be used for all grade levels.

Karen included photos of students using thinking routines for this post. Such engagement!

The “Compass Points” thinking routine is a great way to open up a school year1

01:01 Vicki: So give me an example of how it’s used in your classroom.

01:04 Karen V: One of the things that I do at the very beginning of the year is I use this thinking routine called “compass points“. And it’s north, south, east, and west. We got a little integration of social studies there. And I did this routine for the very first time when I came back from Harvard’s Project Zero Classroomin 2012, and it’s an opportunity for the kids to really share what are they nervous about so that’s the N. What are they nervous about? What do they need from me as the teacher? And then the S is, what support do they need for me? What specific things do they envision as they go throughout the year that they’re going to need my support in?

The Visible Thinking website is a fantastic resource. I’ve linked to the thinking routines Karen mentions here, but there are many more thinking routines to teach students. Also the book Making Thinking Visible can help you with these concepts. Harvard’s Project Zeroteaches courses in Visible Thinking – it looks like they have an online course starting in September but you need teams of 3-5 people to join.

And I’ll never forget the year Morgan told me, “Ms V, I’m not good at math and I can’t ever have you raise your voice at me ’cause I get too nervous about it.” Not that I was ever a teacher that raised her voice but Morgan was just that nervous about it.

And then W, worries. What worries do you have about being in that particular year? It was second grade but I’ve done this for third graders and fourth graders. And then E, what excites you? And what happens, children are honest and they basically put down what are their Ns, what are their Ss, what are their Es, what are their Ws, and what that does is it really gives me a glimpse into what they’re thinking about as they embark on this school year. So that’s just one example of getting the year started off with a thinking routine.

02:36 Vicki: I love that. So are these different ways of thinking that you teach students?

The Book: Making Thinking Visible

02:43 Karen V: Yeah, now I don’t know if I can plug a book here but the…

02:47 Vicki: Go ahead, plug a book, plug away.

02:48 Karen V: The book is “Making Thinking Visible“ and the principal author was Ron Ritchhart, it was also written by Mark Church. There’s different types of thinking.

Perspective Taking Thinking Routines

So for example, one of the types of thinking is perspective taking.

So as we go through and we read a book, I may ask my students to step inside those characters and ask them, “What are they seeing? What are they thinking? What are they feeling as that character?” And what happens is they have to go back in the text and they have to look for evidence in the text that would reinforce what they’re learning, what they’re reading about in that text. So it depends on what kind of thinking that you’re wanting the children to do and that will dictate, in some respects, what thinking routine you’ll use as a teacher.

The biggest mistakes Karen made with teaching thinking routines

03:36 Vicki: What do you think the biggest mistake you made with thinking routines was?

03:39 Karen V: What I learned… I was privileged to go back for a second time as a study group leader to Project Zero a couple years after my initial experience there. I didn’t teach my kids the specific routines.

Note from Vicki: Could there be a more important point than this? We all need to listen to Karen here. We want to teach students to think! So, let’s give them the routines to think and let’s help them know the routines to think. Then, students can go into that mode of thinking when tackling problems. This is a fantastic point!

Karen: So, when I came back that following year, I was teaching third grade, and so I really taught my children what these thinking routines were. So instead of having to constantly repeat the steps and the other beautiful part about these routines, is none of them have more than three steps. So they’re very easy to integrate in any content area, in any grade level. That was the first year when I came back that second time I was like, “Okay. I’m going to teach them what these routines are.”

The tug-of-war thinking routine

Karen: So if I said to the kids, “Hey, guys we’re getting ready to do tug-of-war.”They knew what tug-of-war was and I’ll never forget the first time I did that. I was like, “Okay, guys we’re going to be looking at this debate. These two different authors have two different view points about this particular topic. When we’re done reading it we’re gonna do tug-of-war.” “Yay! Yay!” They get all excited about it. So not teaching them the routines when I first came back and now that’s something I’m very deliberate every year. I start to teach the students what these routines are so when there’s an applicable point of using them, they jump right in and do it.

The first routine many teachers use: See/Think/Wonder

05:00 Vicki: So you’ve already given us three examples. Do you have another example or two that are like, “These are your tried and true, we use these a lot?”

05:08 Karen V: The very first routine that most teachers come back and use when they come back from this experience, is See/Think/Wonder. And See/Think/Wonder can be done in so many different kinds of ways because it can be done with pictures that teachers cultivate from different resources and they put up on a smart board, they project it on a promethean board, whatever it is. It may be actual artifacts.

I actually did math with art one year when we were looking at geometry and had them use these particular different pieces of art that really incorporated a lot of geometry. And that is really giving them an opportunity to name what they observe so that’s practicing observation skills. Then from there, they’re answering the questions, “What do you think is going on in that picture?” And then from there, “What do you wonder?”

05:58 Karen V: And that’s the beautiful part right there because when you get the kids to say what they’re wondering about, for me, that was like my road map of, “Where am I going to go next to help them explore what it is that they wanna know?” Because when I do that, then they’re engaged, they’re excited about the learning. And there’s no behavior problems that are going on in the classroom ’cause they’re so excited about this kind of learning.

And as a teacher, those questions also help me capture any misconceptions. And you know as well as I do that when kids get hold of a misconception, if we wait until there’s an assessment and then we catch it, it’s already so deeply rooted that it takes that much more time to undo it. So these are great opportunities to find out what student misconceptions are and catch those on the front end.

How Karen’s classroom has changed since using thinking routines

06:51 Vicki: Give me an example of how you think your classroom has changed now that you’re using thinking routines?

06:57 Karen V: It is a student centered classroom where they are excited about learning and I am just the guide on the side. I’m the person that’s going around asking them questions, “What do you notice? What do you wonder? What is your partner talking about?” They’re collaborating with each other. Every time I use a thinking routine I have never ever had a child off task. And that’s been the exciting part because this is really tapping into what they’re bringing to the table in their learning, so it’s just been very exciting to see the enthusiasm they have for learning. So as I’ve come up and over the learning curve in utilizing these thinking routines, I keep trying to find more and more ways to integrate them whether it’s in ELA, science, social studies, math.

Resources to Learn More

07:48 Vicki: So your favorite resources for thinking routines, you have “Making Thinking Visible”, you’ve got the Project Zero resources. Any other places that you go to learn these?

07:56 Karen V: Well, if you live in Memphis, Tennessee or Shelby county [laughter] myself and another teacher were asked, actually asked by Harvard’s Project Zero to start basically a Project Zero satellite group in Memphis. And so, every year we conduct Project Zero workshops where we bring in teachers from all the surrounding areas.

You can just google Project Zero or you can google “Making Thinking Visible” and you will find a multitude of resources out there. There’s videos out there so that you can see what this actually looks like in a classroom, whether it’s early childhood, middle childhood, if it’s secondary. And we use these during in service to get our teachers kicked off so that they can see how these routines are used, model that for them, and then take it back to fit their students and their particular content areas.

A Challenge to teach them to think

08:47 Vicki: So remarkable teachers, we all have an important strategy to understand and that is thinking routines. And I especially like how Karen or Ms V says that we need to teach these routines to our students because this is something they can carry with them for a lifetime, the way to think, the way to analyze. And really, isn’t that something that so many teachers say, “I want my students to know how to think?”

Well, maybe we’re not teaching them how to think. Maybe we’re just feeding them too much and not giving them the thinking routines they need. So, so many great resources and a way to unlock more remarkable teaching.

Bio as submitted

Karen Vogelsang has taught elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee for fourteen years. She currently serves Shelby County Schools in a hybrid role working on teacher engagement projects for the Chief of Staff, as well as teaching 4th grade. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and a Master’s in Elementary Education. She is the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year. Karen is National Board Certified in Early Childhood, and a certified mentor. Karen currently serves on Governor Haslam’s Teachers Cabinet. She also serves as a Fellow Facilitator for Tennessee Hope Street Group. Karen is a member of the Gates Foundation and NCTQ Teacher Advisory Councils. In March 2012, Karen received a fellowship to attend Harvard’s Project Zero Classroom, and is the co-founder of Project Zero Memphis. As a result she has been invited to speak about the integration of thinking routines with effective questioning strategies.

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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