Honor the Process

I’m not an artist myself, but I’ve always been drawn to the colors and textures and weave of fabrics from around the world. I like designs on cloth and clothing design. I used to quilt, and once upon a time, I sewed my own clothes. So, on a recent trip to Philadelphia, when I learned about The Fabric Workshop and Museum, I was eager to visit. What I stumbled upon there was a retrospective exhibition of 40 years of fabric art, all works completed on the premises by visiting artists.  Some of them—like Faith Ringgold and Louise Nevelson—I recognized; the others were new to me. The exhibition—which runs until March 25, 2018, if you happen to live in Philadelphia—is named: Process and Practice: 40 Years of Experimentation.


The first “piece” I encountered was a box of loosely arranged fabric, raw on the edges; pencil drawings; a map; two kinds of cord; a color wheel made of fabric bits, lengths of watercolor on silk; color swatches drawn as tiny skeins–all of it arranged pleasingly, invitingly, in a glass display case. The assemblage was striking, beautiful all by itself.

I came upon another box, and another, and then some finished pieces on the wall.  

And then I saw that the finished pieces were composed of the items in the box; that is, each box contained the working material of the art on the wall.  

Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach II

A colleague was with me, and together we spent quite a bit of time matching the items in the boxes to the creations on the wall. It was like working through a puzzle or deciphering clues to solve a mystery. We saw, in the notes and drawings and material, each artist’s mind at work—their ingenuity, the choices they made, the juxtapositions that, by chance or design, resulted in the finished piece.

In some cases, photographs and artifacts from the original installation, impossible to recreate, were mounted on the wall above the corresponding box.


The pieces on the wall–or on the floor, or suspended from the ceiling–were stunning.

But so were the boxes.

And then, because we are teachers, my colleague and I began to imagine what could be done with this concept in the classroom, what kind of curation task we could set our students to.

Clothing design, interior design, art itself—these are obvious. But what about these:

A social studies box: Choose a period in history and assemble or recreate artifacts that helped you understand significant events or persons or issues during that time. Include, perhaps, excerpts from texts you read, photographs, maps, timetables, music, art pieces, the bits from your research that informed your impression of that time period.  The project could culminate in a poster or a Powerpoint.

A literature box: Choose an author and a characteristic work. Include for the box a picture of the author, of course, and the text itself. But also slip in pictures or reproductions or even real objects that inspired the writer. If they’re available—as they sometimes are online—earlier drafts of the story or poem you selected, the writing utensils likely used, the correspondence between the writer and his or her muse or spouse or editor. Into the box with whatever informs your understanding of the author and the text you selected. And then, how about a book (or story or poetry) talk for the class?

A science box: Choose a disease for which a cure needs to be found, or an environmental issue, or a specific engineering problem that needs to be solved. Find or create the elements that inform the search. Include drawings of cells or elements or photographs of physical locations, maybe a picture of the lab where the work is being done.  Add in printouts of data, tables, charts, diagrams, journal articles you consulted, Petri dishes, microscopes or other lab equipment—or photographs of same—relevant to the search and then create a poster or prepare a Ted Talk synthesizing what you learned.

I am not talking about random artifacts collected to symbolize a writer or a time period or a scientific inquiry. I am not talking about the sort of project students are often asked to do because they are hands-on learners–like, say, a diorama. I am not even talking about “finished” boxes in the way that the artist Joseph Cornell created art inside of a box.

I am talking about an assemblage of items that informs a conclusion, a final product, an enduring understanding (to use Grant Wiggins’ term), or a final takeaway.  

I’m talking about, well, a tangible bibliography.  

The box would represent the student’s choices along his journey to understanding:  “Here are the items I consulted when I did my research. I may not have ‘used’ all of them in my presentation, but all of them were a part of my research.” Indeed, it seemed to me, residing in some of the boxes at the Fabric Museum’s gallery were items that the artist did not incorporate into the final piece but that had, at some point and in some way, suggested themselves as possibilities. The artist made a conscious decision not to use that particular item, but the item was as important as a discard as other items were as selections.

What the box did was make thinking visible.

So, we might say to the student, expose your peers to your process as well as your product. Let them see what you investigated and how you learned and how your final product came into being.  

Because, recreating the process of thinking will help them understand how you came to your conclusions.  (In fact, this act of metacognition will help you understand your own thinking!)

Because, recreating the progress of your thought will also help me, the teacher,  understand how you got from here to there.

Because, jumbled and messy and fragmented as it is, the process of learning is as intriguing—and as beautiful—as the final product.

Because, process deserves as much space—and as much attention—as product.

As educators, we need to make sure we honor the process. That’s how our students learn.

Without process, there is no product. Without process, there is no art.

Without the journey, we can’t reach the destination.



Go to the Parent Conference

This one is for parents: Why you should do this, even if all is well.

Face it: When Parent Conference Night rolls around, we’re all tired. I’m tired from a long day in the classroom; you’re tired from your day of work, too. Frantically eating dinner, remaining dressed up, and driving to the school (perhaps for the second or third time that day) may seem like a lot of effort for a minimal return.

But parents should always attend conferences—even if the teacher says they don’t need to. Here’s why:

For the teacher, you are more than a visible presence that night, more than a momentary reminder that your child’s progress in school matters to you. When you show up at conference time, I have you in the back of my mind all the rest of the year. By meeting you, I get a rounded picture of your child and develop a clear sense of obligation to you as a family. It isn’t that I don’t pay attention to the kids whose parents don’t come to conference. I do. In fact, the most frequent lament about conferences that I voice—and the one I hear the most often from other teachers—is that the parents who most need to come, don’t.

It isn’t that I cater to your child, either—because I don’t.

Here’s the secret not a lot of parents realize: Attendance at a parent conference—or an open house—is not a perfunctory exercise. Parents and teachers form relationships because of these interactions, and the parents who do attend conferences become a sort of litmus test for the ideas we invent, for the questions we have, for the quandaries we’re in. What would Sally’s parents or Joe’s parents think of this idea? This method? This idea for a field trip? This expectation? Could they be a resource? Would they chaperone? Is what I am expecting, reasonable?

Knowing you broadens my perspective. Your responses factor into my decision-making.

And just as I develop a rounded picture of your child when I meet you, you have a better picture of me when you come to the conference: not just what I look like (though that helps when you’re reading an email from me or speaking to me on the phone), but my demeanor, the intensity in my voice, my facial expression when I talk about your child. All of those little clues inform your response to me—and that could be important at some point during our year together.

Bottom line: when you come to the conference, you open up that line of communication between us. There’s a problem I should know about? Something’s come up? It’s easier to call me or email when you know who I am—and it’s easier for me to approach you if we’ve already met.

When you come to the conference, you learn the details behind the grade on the report card. Not just the standardized test scores, though you’ll learn those, too, and you’ll have an opportunity to have them explained. But you’ll also find out what you may not know: that your child is a good listener or a respectful group leader or needs help with understanding figurative language or doesn’t take notes or doesn’t take advantage of extra help or checks out more books from the library than anyone else in the class or went out of his way to help someone else. When you come to the conference, you’ll find out I know a lot about your child and I care about him, too.

Go to the parent conference so your child has concrete evidence that you care, so he or she knows that you will always go to the parent conference, good or bad. If you only go when there is a problem, that will communicate the wrong message. After the conference, let your child know how proud of him you are and how much you appreciate his teacher and the chance to meet with her. Make him think parent conferences are cool because parents and teachers get to talk together about the one person who is at the center of the universe: him. Make your child proud that you attend the conferences. As he grows older, there will be plenty of kids whose parents don’t, and you will want your child to think your attendance is cool, not dumb.

By going to the parent conference, you’re reaching out across the generations. Children watch everything their parents do. Because you went to school to meet their teachers, they will show up at their children’s conferences. It’s all about modeling.

It’s also a chance—and here’s a shameless plug for all the hard-working teachers I know—for a parent to thank the teacher for all he or she does–teachers need pats on the back, too, so a thank you is a boost, and a positive conference is just as important as a problem one, even if it does take up a few minutes when we’re all tired and ready to go home.

And let me add this before I move away from the subject: For the most part, I really enjoy parent conferences. When I open my classroom door and parents drop in, I feel like I am inviting them into my home. In some ways, I am. I spend more awake hours per week at school than at my home, and I do “clean house” for my visitors: I wipe down the tables, clean the boards, tidy up for the occasion. I stop short of cookies and tea (although that might not have been a bad idea for sweetening a couple of the conferences I’ve had in my career).

Many of the parents I see are like family. I’ve taught all of their children—or more than one of their children—and I’ve even taught some of them. Sometimes they’ll stick their heads in the door and wave at me even though I no longer have their children in my classes. If I’m not in conference with someone, they’ll come in to chat, bring me up to date on the kids who are now in college, or grad school, or having babies, or farming, or working in Indianapolis, or traveling somewhere in the world. That means a lot. I’ve invested time, energy, and yes, love in their children, and I really do want to know what is happening in their lives and how they’ve fared in the wider world.

So go to the conference–all the way through high school. Even if all you do is stick your head in the door and wave.

Primary Source

Why We March

If you live long enough, you become a primary source.

I was the guest speaker in an AP US History class some time ago, there to talk about my brief stint in Chicago the summer before I married—marching there with MLK, Jr., the types of jobs I did for VISTA, and the state of the Chicago Public Schools 49 years later. Neighborhoods are unchanged; schools are still segregated. Poverty is at the heart of it. If you follow school politics, you know the Chicago Public Schools are in an even more deplorable condition than they were a half-century ago.

The teacher had read my blog post about JFK and touching—or maybe not touching—him when his motorcade came through my town during the 1960 presidential campaign. When she asked me to talk to the class about what I remembered, the substance was scanty—all inspiration and no information. But our conversation drifted to the Civil Rights Movement and for that I had more content—or thought I did. I agreed to talk to her classes.

When I got down to thinking about what I would say, of course, my memories turned out to be pretty meager in this department, too. It would have taken me about one minute to relay the following: “I was in Chicago; King came; I marched. We met in Grant Park, went through the streets of Chicago, ended at City Hall. He was up on a platform and I was too far away to touch him. We all joined hands. We did sing “We Shall Overcome.” I felt good.

So I had to do some research. I started with a box of letters and memorabilia from my college days. My mother had saved every letter I wrote home for the four years I was in college. In that box was a red pocket folder with a few “artifacts” from my time in Chicago the summer after graduation. In the folder was a flyer: Why We March. No date, but a little printer’s mark, indicating that the item was printed, not xeroxed, and a few details of the back story.

Names: Ben Willis and Mayor Daley. Al Raby. The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations.

I found a book–out of print—and ordered it: Northern Protest by James R. Ralph, Jr., Turns out, his account of King in Chicago had been a source for Isabel Wilkerson, whose astounding and fascinating story of the great migration of southern blacks, The Warmth of Other Suns, captured a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

In Ralph’s book, I found the date of the March: July 26, 1965. 15,000 people. The largest civil rights demonstration Chicago had ever seen—so said the Chicago Daily News.

I read further in the book and then online about 1966, the year King returned and lived in Lawndale (western suburb, black, the destination of many African-Americans migrating from the South) and the cat and mouse game Daley played with him, the marches that turned violent. All the online texts were about 1966; the Eyes on the Prize video, all about 1966; the accessible newspaper coverage, all about 1966.

How could I prove I had been there? Even the papers in the online Southern Christian Leadership Conference archives are about 1966.

Finally, I found two articles in the Chicago Defender, the leading African-American  newspaper of the day, about the 1965 march—written two days after it was over. The Tribune archives for that year: not online. The Sun-Times? I’d have to sign up for a 7-day free subscription and then I’d probably forget to cancel it.

Finally, finally, I happened upon an edu site (Students, listen: edu sites always yield the best stuff!)—the The University of Illinois at Chicago–that had a summary of 1965 and had reproduced on their site the very flyer I had in my hands. Oh, wow! I’d hit pay dirt and was excited beyond belief.

So funny. The kids would have believed me, but I wanted the proof that what I held was indeed a primary source. This was, after all, an AP history course.

That summer–1965–Al Raby, a black schoolteacher from the South Side, had become the head of an umbrella group of community organizations, all (until then) working independently for better schools, better housing, better employment opportunities. But the focus was on the schools, still (11 years after Brown vs. The Board of Education) 90% segregated. The CCCO marched every day that summer on City Hall. They wanted Daley to dismiss Ben Willis, the Superintendent, because his policies perpetuated segregation. Recently, the schools had gone to double shifts because they were so crowded–that is, the black schools had gone to double shifts. Some white schools had empty desks. But the CCCS was getting nowhere–Daley was a formidable and cagey foe–so they appealed to King, who had led a huge rally at Soldier Field the summer before in 1964 (estimated attendance: from 30,000 to as many as 60,000) and was at that moment looking to expand the movement into a northern city.

A perfect meeting of purposes.

King was in Chicago in 1965 on a five-city tour called the People to People campaign to see which city would be best—Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, or DC—for his northern protest, his “Freedom Summer” in the north. That was to have been what 1966 would be.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. In 1966, King moved into an apartment in Lawndale, deliberately moving there to draw attention to housing inequities. He was still interested in employment and education, but the focus that summer was on open housing. I explained to the students about redlining—the sly and exclusionary tactic of delineating certain areas of the city and then refusing to sell property in those areas or provide financing to people of color who wanted to buy there. Online, I had found maps of Chicago with the neighborhoods clearly marked off. I brought these to class, and I reminded the students of Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful play, written in 1957, A Raisin in the Sun—still in our 9th grade English anthologies—about a black family that prepares to move into a white suburb of Chicago (a play with connections to Hansberry’s own family story). Many of the students had read the drama, nodded in recognition. I recited some lines from Langston Hughes, lines the students knew (Thanks, English teachers!!!):

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?

Or does it explode?

It exploded in 1966: rioting, marches that turned violent, Dr. King himself hit by a rock thrown at a march in Marquette Park on the South Side. And Daley repeatedly outmaneuvering King. Ultimately, fearing violence in Cicero (a white community that bordered Lawndale and the West Garfield area where I’d been stationed in 1965), King settled with Daley–a 10 point agreement that did make some inroads–and called off the Cicero march. Stokely Carmichael and others, though, went ahead with it on their own, and the march in Cicero did turn violent–bloody and awful.

But in 1965, the year I was there, Chicago was by and large peaceful. It gave King hope that the non-violent tactics of the South could work in the North.

Consider this: If King hadn’t come to Chicago–or any other place–the laws would not have changed; even less, the climate. If the Civil Rights Movement of my day had never happened, would there have been a Women’s Movement, a Native American Movement, Stonewall and the Gay Rights Movement, a Latino Movement? King’s compromise in 1966 was a setback, and the assassination was devastating…but ultimately, progress.

But so much, too much, left to do.

The kids asked me how I reacted to MLK’s assassination. I put my head down on the dining room table and cried, I told them. I remember that distinctly. It was the death of a hero.

The message to the students: Your voice matters. I was one insignificant person in 15,000 that day–but 15,000 insignificant people were not insignificant in their impact. 15,000 helped to convince King to come. He came, and even though he didn’t achieve exactly what he sought, progress was made.

You can change the world, I told the students. You can. But you must stand up, speak up for what is moral and right.

Apparently, the talk was inspiring. Kids clapped, thanked me, and some came back to hear the presentation twice. (I talked to four classes.) The teacher asked me to partner with her next year and do all this during the Civil Rights Unit instead of as a guest speaker. To which I readily agreed and suggested that next year the kids do the research, now that I know it is there and so much is available online.

In all these years, I have not spoken at length about marching with King, though it is something I look back on as significant in my life. Oh, I had mentioned it a few times to kids in school, but not as part of a long discussion with facts and details and questions and answers. I was never quite comfortable. In the first place, I had forgotten the facts. In the second, I was stopped by the feeling that throwing it into a conversation—even one about racism in this country or one about the pernicious effects of poverty—would have been gratuitous, even self-congratulatory. And what was there to congratulate myself about? Of course I marched.

So here I am, old enough to be a primary source and to have had the chance to tell this story.


I’ve reblogged this piece now because this story recounts a piece of the King legacy that not everyone knows about. I’ve also reblogged it because my message to students is more important now than it ever was: You can change the world. You can. But you must stand up, speak up for what is moral and right.

Starting Over in January

You made it!  New teacher or veteran, you survived the First Day, the First Week,  Open House, Parent Conferences, the First Grading Period, and Final Exams.

And soon, here we will be again, at the start of a new semester.

I know you spent a little time, in the midst of the celebration and the holidays, to reflect on the first semester. What went well, what you plan to dump, what you’re going to change up a bit.

Here are, the way I see it, the four specific areas of teaching that every educator strives to master:

  • Organization  (How you’ve set up your classroom)
  • Classroom Management (How you approach discipline)
  • Instruction (How you fill those 50 minutes)
  • The Soft Side (How you relate to the kids)

All four of these categories are crucial to success.  You may like the way you are doing things now, but the best teachers always ask “Is there a better way?”


Seating arrangements. If you want more discussion, change the seats so the students face each other. Talking to the backs of heads doesn’t promote dialogue.  On the other hand, if things have gotten too social, maybe you need rows.  Here’s a great (free) web tool for redoing the room arrangements:  http://classroom.4teachers.org/  Click on “Classroom Architect.”

Absent Work. When kids are absent, do they drive you crazy asking what they missed?  Do you forget where you’ve put the handouts from the day they were gone?  Consider establishing a place in the room especially dedicated to helping absent students find what they’re responsible for.  Here is one example of a “While You Were Away” spot in a classroom I’ve visited.  

Posting Objectives, Agendas, and Homework.  How many times do kids say, “What are we doing today?”  “What’s the homework?”  “Why are we doing this?”  These questions, too, can drive you crazy.  Another dedicated wall space can solve the problem.  Here’s another sample board from a high school classroom. 

Classroom Management

Procedures. When we greet students the first day with a long list of rules and punishments, some kids just naturally seem to want to buck the system.  If you have been having “discipline problems” and want fewer challenges, try developing procedures instead of rules.

Best book about procedures: Harry and Rosemary Wong: The First Days of School. In this, their first book, they explain in depth their strategy for teaching procedures: Teach/Rehearse/Practice.

Teach your students procedures. As the Wongs explain, procedures are positive. They’re easy to follow.  They help us all know what to do in a given situation: How to install an app on our phones. How to buy a gift from Amazon. How to report an absence.  Everything is a procedure, really.  In the classroom, too, it’s all procedure: How to pass in papers. How to exit for a fire alarm. How to get out your computer.  Same with these things:  What to do when you’re late to class.  What to do when you’re finished with your work.  What to do when your pencil breaks.  Decide on the procedures you want to make routine in your classroom and then teach them to your students.

Rehearse the procedures. On the first day of the new semester, explain to students what you expect and show them how to do whatever it is.  It’s worth spending a few minutes rehearsing what to do in any of these situations because, after that, when someone doesn’t follow the procedure, you just remind them: “This is the procedure I expect you to follow.”  

Practice the procedures again if you have to…or periodically throughout the semester.  And be patient.  You can last longer than they can.  Eventually, they’ll get the message.  Well, 99% will.  And then there are steps you can follow for that pesky 1%.


Write objectives: Robert Marzano published this great book: Classroom Instruction That Works. In it, he described the 9 instructional strategies that bring the most bang for the buck in terms of student learning. One of those 9 is setting objectives.

John Hattie published Visible Learning for Teachers. It’s a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of a ton of teaching strategies and conditions.  Guess what? Setting objectives is one of the most effective moves you can make.  Hattie calls it “Teacher Clarity.”

Post your objectives.  It’s not enough to have objectives. You have to communicate them to your students, too.  Make them visible. Refer to them at the beginning of instruction, during instruction, and at the end of the lesson.  

Objectives vs. Agenda.  Your objective is not the same thing as your agenda. You do a lot of things in the course of 50 minutes, but the objective relates to the instructional piece:  What you want the students to know or do.  Take a look at this board from a classroom. The teacher has separated the agenda for the day from the objective of the day. This one isn’t fancy, but what students need to know couldn’t be clearer. 

Instruction includes strategies and activities–what you will do, what you will have the students do, to deliver on the objectives.  This is such a huge topic that I am going to leave it at this for now. But, search my blog and sites online for specific strategies you’d like to try or ones you’d like to refine. 

The Soft Side

They have to know you care.

Funny thing is, it doesn’t take much for the student to realize you do.  Here’s what they say:

  • My teacher greets me at the door.
  • My teacher remembers what activities (sports, drama, speech, etc.) I’m in—or where I work—and asks me about it.
  • If I’m absent, my teacher asks me if I feel better.
  • My teacher sends positive notes home.
  • My teacher attends school events.
  • My teacher keeps the grade book up to date so I know where I stand.
  • My teacher walks around the room and helps us.
  • My teacher smiles at me.

“Caring” to a student is recognizing that he or she is an individual.

So, because this is the gift-giving season, take some time over the holidays–while there still is a little time–to reflect on the gifts you can give as a teacher.  Deliver them in January:

  • A well-organized classroom
  • A management plan that emphasizes the positive
  • A learning plan that kids can understand
  • An approach that says “I care”

And Welcome Back!!

A Christmas Memory

An exquisite teaching moment, one that still takes my breath away. Take the time this month to explore holiday classics and recall your own memorable classroom moments. Sweet, sweet gifts that last longer than the moment.

In an American Classroom

In years when I was not running behind by December, when I hadn’t lingered too long on To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations or any other of the books my freshmen read, back when so many days weren’t set aside for standardized tests and final exams and AR assessments, back when I had control of the calendar, I liked to set aside the last several instructional days of the semester for Christmas literature. Sometimes we read A Christmas Carol, sometimes Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” sometimes Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” My favorite, of course, was the latter—for two reasons. First, because the story lends itself to the students writing their own memoirs about Christmas—always a delight to read—and then, because I loved watching my students come slowly to the realization that the little boy narrator of “A Christmas Memory” and Dill Harris in To Kill…

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Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

Once more, and still always with the same feeling.

In an American Classroom


Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition.  Once more, the holiday gives me an opportunity to say thank you to my former students. You’ve enriched my life beyond measure, and I am grateful for the time we spent together and for the contribution you are making to our community and to the world.  Was it worth it? All that time and energy and love? The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies, and I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office so another of you could give me a shot. I’ve run into you in…

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Thinking Made Visible

Used to be, when students would stare off into space, we wouldn’t know what they were thinking about. Now, with all the screens in front of their faces—and ours—we at least know the topic of their attention.

But what are they actually thinking? How can we get inside their heads to discern their thought process? If they’re on the mark, terrific!  But if they’re stuck, how can we know?

My colleague used these cool, washable markers and the tables in her science lab to do just that: Get inside her students’ heads.


We were co-teaching a lesson in AP Biology about food insecurity in Afghanistan—the primary and secondary causes and the various effects interruptions in growing and marketing food have on the health and well-being of the people in that war-torn country.  It’s a complex topic with complicated connections.

So after we set the stage by introducing new vocabulary, after we had shown a short film about microcredit and talked about food aid from foreign donors, after we’d discussed the topic as a group, we distributed a paper for students to read and a guided reading activity to accompany it. The weekend homework was for students to read the paper, which proposed some solutions to the problem, and think through the questions on the guided reading sheet.

Sure enough. Come Monday, several students hadn’t read the paper. Even more tripped up on the questions because what was called for weren’t easy, fill-in-the-blank, seek-and-find responses. The students had to think about what they had read and make connections. It was a tough assignment. The reading itself was daunting.

But what my colleague did next was not to berate the students or express exasperation. Instead, she put them in groups and asked them to draw the connections, as they understood them, between the causes and effects of food insecurity–right on her lab tables.

As the students sketched out the author’s ideas, my colleague and I were able to move from table to table and with a glance, see where thinking had gone awry, where gaps in understanding occurred. When we’d point out the exact place where the students had not understood, we could sometimes hear sucked-in breaths or audible exclamations. “Oh! I get it now!”

For us, this exercise was thinking made visible. Because of it, we could lead students to a better understanding of what had previously been confusing or even mystifying.

I began to think about where else thinking is visible and what kinds of opportunities teachers construct to make that happen. After all, a check for understanding isn’t meant to be a check for recall. It isn’t just about getting the right answer. A check for understanding is supposed to clue teachers in as to what our students actually have comprehended or taken away from a lesson.

In math class, teachers ask students to “show their work.”  That’s how the teacher can tell if the answer was a lucky guess or the product of a thoughtful approach to the problem.  If the teacher can see the steps the student took to arrive at the solution, the exact point of un-understanding is visible—just as in the table talk my colleague and I conducted with her students.  In fact, math teachers look at “showing your work” as a road map. The point where thinking breaks down is the precise place to apply the red pen—not just on the answer itself. Or, as the teacher in this video does, apply the yellow highlighter.

Geometry offers the same potential for revelation of thought.  Proofs are mental processes revealed. In evaluating a proof, the teacher has to follow, step by step, the student’s logic. That makes checking proofs time-consuming—just as, when reading students’ essays, the English teacher has to follow the student’s train of thought in order to make actionable comments.  But from heavy duty assignments like proofs and essays, teachers learn precisely what students don’t understand—or do, as the case may be.

Old-fashioned sentence outlines are also great revealers. Students prefer the bullet points of a topic outline, of course, because they can bluff their way through an outline check or turn in something when they haven’t really started thinking about their topic. But when ideas aren’t connected with transition words and complete sentences aren’t available for examination, the teacher can’t really follow the student’s train of thought. When a sentence outline has gaps and misunderstandings, the teacher can direct next steps.

One of my favorite lessons when I taught composition was an exercise in understanding how sentence outlines work. I’d find or construct a fairly complicated sentence outline of a research topic, cut the sentences into strips, remove the numbers and letters, and assemble sets of these sentences, all jumbled up.  Students would form groups, and I’d hand each group a set of the sentences. They’d spend the rest of the period figuring out the outline based on logic and the clues provided by transition words. Then, of course, I’d require them to construct their own sentence outlines.  

And when I really cast my thoughts far back into the recesses of my life in an American classroom, I remember sentence diagramming. I’m not advocating for bringing that back necessarily, but I do have to say, faulty diagrams revealed exactly what students didn’t understand about sentence structure.

Whenever a performance is required, whenever students do something, we see thought in action: Their level or degree of understanding is immediately evident in the performance of a musical piece, the execution of an art project, the preparation of a recipe, the construction of a garment, the reassembly of an automobile system. The problem is, when what we seek to understand is a mental process, it’s not so readily visible. Sketch notes help. Graphic organizers and graphic summaries help. Models and puzzles and other manipulatives do the trick.

But what else? Send me your pictures and tell me about the activities and processes you employ to make thinking visible.  I’d like to put together a gallery of thought-tracking possibilities.

And if you purchase some of those neon markers?  Be sure to get some Windex and a roll of paper towels, too. You’ll need them!  This activity is addictive!