Hypochondria…Part II

Months after this post, I am still banned from WebMD for my own good, but luckily for me, the New York Times prints plenty of fascinating medical information.  This article was one example.  The article talks about a variety of doctor behaviors that patients dislike, and the lack of feedback on these behaviors that doctors have traditionally gotten, as patients often just leave for a new doctor without giving a reason.  In the article, some medical groups that have implemented patient surveys as a way to counter this problem share their experiences.

Dr. Howard Beckman, medical director of the Rochester Independent Practice Association, often talks to doctors who receive low scores in patient satisfaction – often, he says, on measures of how well patients thought they were listened to.  He described his surefire method as “You use continuers.  As you’re working with people, you say ‘uh huh’ three times.”  And then he went on to describe doctors who tried this and discovered that they were able to get closer to the heart of the problem.  One doctor talked with a patient who initially complained of chest pains.  The doctor said “uh huh” the first time and found out that the patient also suffered from headaches.  He said “uh huh” again, and the patient finally mentioned that the pains started when his brother died unexpectedly.  The doctor was stunned that it worked – and while he might still order the same medical tests, he had a lot more context for what those results might mean than if he had immediately concluded that the man had a heart or head ailment.

When I read this anecdote, I immediately thought about conferring.  Specifically, research.  How often, I wondered, had I bulldozed past a kid’s thinking by rushing the research?  How often had I heard a likely teaching point emerge from a kid’s first remark and felt relieved (“Finally, a conference where I know what to say!”) and then cut the research short, maybe too short?

In one of those fortuitous “When you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail” moments, I then picked up a professional text (which I highly, HIGHLY recommend – imagine a professional book that you read on the train and can’t put down!), Reading Projects Reimagined by Dan Feigelson.  On page 31 he said “Like Russian dolls, one inside the other, when a teacher continues to ask for elaboration in this way, by the third or fourth say more about that, the reader’s thinking is almost always deeper.”  

So I started to try this out.  I would say “uh huh” or “hmmm” or “Tell me more” three times, to see what would happen.

What didn’t happen was my secret fear — kids staring at me like I was out of my mind, or a little dumb.  I worried that kids might think, “Why is she asking me to say more AGAIN?” but in fact, most of the kids I talked to seemed perfectly happy to go on and add more.  

What did happen was that kids opened up more, and pushed themselves more.  Instead of “Julian and Charlotte in Wonder are really different” and then a laundry list of reasons why, I started to hear “They both want attention.”  Instead of “I could revise by changing my lead”, I got “Also, I could cut what doesn’t fit well, and I want to make it more exciting, and also I think this scene here could get better.”  And instead of hearing the clock ticking toward desperately locating some kind of teaching point to use, I started to hear kids’ voices better.

It might seem that a simple prescription to say certain words in certain combinations couldn’t possibly be enough to make a meaningful change in my teaching practice.  But the simplicity of the concept helped it to stick in my mind, and the response of kids when they were invited to talk more was worth the effort.  Carl Anderson writes, “By truly listening to [our students] as we confer, we let them know that the work they’re doing as writers matters” (How’s It Going, page 23).  The heart of conferring well is listening — so it’s worth doing whatever we can do to get kids to say more, and say more, and say more.

(Not) Going Fishing

Think for a moment – no judgment! – about whether this scenario feels familiar:

Teacher: So, guys, you’ve learned so much about revising in other school years, and we’re going to learn more today. Who can remind us what revising means? John?

John: Well…well…ummm…can I get some help?

Teacher: Sure, uh, Mecca, help him out.

Mecca: Well, revising is like when you get good ideas for writing, and write them down.

Teacher: Weeeeelll…I mean, writing DOES need good ideas, but that’s not quite what I had in mind. Oh, John, you’ve got it now?

John: Yeah, like this one time, I wrote and it was a great idea, like, it turned out to be a great story, it was about my grandfather, and we went hunting, and it was really funny because I had to go to the bathroom…

Teacher: So what is revision?

John: So then, I wrote the story and I checked my spelling so it was perfect.

Teacher: Well, spelling is sooooort of like revision…Anyone else?

Suddenly, your fast review question that was going to be a ten-second reminder to the class of an old concept has turned into a two minute long moment that left half the class convinced that revision has something to do with peeing in the woods.

A lot of us have fallen into this trap – the trap of fishing for answers.

When I work with teachers in classrooms of all sorts, all over the world, one of the most frequent conversations I have is about questioning. I often wonder if teachers think I’m kind of an evil jerk who hates kids when I constantly motion for them to put their hands down during lessons (Who could resist that adorable waving hand? Don’t I care about their ideas?) In my darker moments, I worry that maybe I am, in fact, stifling the thinking of bright young minds, crushing their love of learning.

But then I remember the scenario above. We’ve all been there.

One of the moves that can do the most to tighten your minilessons, focus your instruction, and provide time for real talk, reading, writing, and learning is to cut bait on your fishing questions. Fishing questions are like the one above – you know the right answer, the kids know you know the right answer, and the goal is to see if you can fish it out of a child. Kids’ goals are to avoid being called on, to get called on and show off their mind-reading abilities, or to try to ferret out the right answer from hearing their classmates’ missed guesses.

Compare the scenario above to a question like “We know that revision is when you’re working on making your piece of writing stronger, making it communicate more powerfully. Tell me how you’ve revised in the past.”

To me, that second question does three jobs – reminds kids of what you mean when you say the word revision, invites kids to recall their past experience with revision, and lets you read the room to figure out what this group of kids knows about revision.

The first question has a few problems.   It only does one job for sure – it lets you figure out whether the specific kids you call on know how to define revision. If you’re lucky, it can also do the job of reminding kids of the definition of the word. But the problem with that first question is that it sets you up to (sometimes mistakenly) assume kids don’t know.  Certainly, from reading the exchange above, you’d conclude that John and Mecca aren’t especially confident about what revision means. It would be tempting to shake your head, mumble something about their previous year’s teacher, and haul out the “101” lesson plans.

My question to myself, when faced with that temptation, is to ask myself, “What do I really need to find out here?” If the kids know the definition of revision, but can’t actually revise, how will I know, and how will that help me? And if the reverse is true, if they can revise but can’t state the definition, how will I know, and how will THAT help me?

Some questioning tips that I learned the hard way:

  • Before you pose a question to the class, think about what jobs that question will do. What are you trying to find out? What are you hoping the rest of the class will hear and think about from the question and response?
  • Consider whether the question is one that is best posed teacher to a single student, with the class listening, or whether it’s one that invites a whole class conversation, or whether it’s a topic perfect for partners to turn and talk about.
  • Be ruthless about cutting questions from your lessons. Remember that if you’re looking for one specific answer to a question that sounds like an open-ended question, it is often a fishing question.
  • In the moment, if you’re finding yourself flailing to connect kids’ responses to the right answer, or calling on numerous kids to get a response to what should have been a fast review question – cut bait! Tell kids what you’re thinking – usually the definition of a term or a concept you have a particular explanation for – and then change the question so it forces kids to engage with the concept (like giving an example of the term or idea).


How I Joined the World of Whitewater Rafters and Learned That We’re All Just Between Swims

One of the best things about summer institute season for my colleagues and I is that we get to travel the country and see places we might have otherwise never been. This summer, for instance, I got to tour a peach orchard in Houston County, Georgia, walk the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore, and shop for jewelry in Mystic, Connecticut.

Most recently, I got to do something super cool that I had never done before, in the company of some spectacular colleagues – whitewater rafting! We drove up to Idaho Springs, CO and were thrust surprisingly quickly from professional outfits and presenter mindsets to wetsuits and total newbie status. Trevor, our guide, taught us the basics of paddling before we hoisted the raft into Clear Creek and set off.


There were so many things that were amazing about this adventure – including the fact that none of us fell out! And of course, since I was traveling with a posse of staff developers, when we stopped for post-rafting burgers at Tommyknockers, the conversation drifted into teaching and teamwork and what we might bring back into classrooms from the rapids.

Despite the fact that we were all beginners, Trevor inducted us into the language and the community of whitewater rafters. He did this mostly by using the terminology of rafting, over and over again, in context. If we asked, he explained a word. Sometimes he’d offer up an explanation of why a particular rapid got its name (one was named after the highway exit you could see as you paddled by), or what adventure was about to come up (going over a hole) but most of the vocabulary I learned, I learned because he said it so often!

Some were terms I knew but had to learn in a new context – forward two, back two, lean in, booties – simple enough. Some were terms I could figure out pretty well – like “paddle high five”, “throw-rope” “put in” and “swim” (as in “If you swim, you have to buy beer for everyone” and Trevor’s philosophical musing that “We’re all just between swims”). One he explained outright – “Beaver Slap” (slapping the water with your paddle) but left it to us to make the beaver tail connection. And one of my favorite terms – “yard sale” – we had to figure out on our own. Trevor started talking about one time when he “yard saled” – it seemed to work equally well as a noun or a verb – and the various consequences for yard saling back at the house with the other guides. We pretty quickly figured out that yard saling was something bad, and something similar to falling in the water. We mused (and the internet later confirmed!) that it probably had to do with all of your stuff ending up in the water – like a yard sale. (And as I continued to follow the trail of my etymological research, my colleague Mary Ehrenworth told me that this is actually a skiing term that Trevor migrated into the water.)

When I think about our kids growing as writers, readers, mathematicians, historians, scientists, artists, athletes, and even rafters, one of the things that always seems to distinguish a rookie from a pro is their command of the vocabulary (including slang and idioms) of their craft. Sometimes, as teachers, it feels like we have a massive job on our hands – how are we supposed to teach kids ALL this specialized vocabulary, on top of teaching them to actually DO the things the vocabulary suggests? It’s easy to throw up your hands and ignore the vocabulary, or to over-emphasize learning terms in isolation – I’ve certainly been guilty of both at times!

But my experience with Trevor on the raft is making me think that looking to other types of teachers and other fields could be a good way to figure out how people really learn to talk like a pro in their field. Rafting day trips, weekend sports clubs, first days at new jobs, music lessons…all of these kinds of places require people to take on a role and act like experts before they really are. Acting like experts helps rookies gain confidence and eventually gain expertise. And a big part of acting expert is sounding expert – talking with the right lingo.

So maybe when we think about teaching kids, say, the vocabulary of writing, we can think about how we joyfully immerse kids in sounding like an expert and help them talk like experts even before they are (and this seems like it would help our conversations with writers, too). In, say, a fiction writing unit, think of the difference between saying:

A: “Stories, narratives, are made up of smaller scenes. And in all of those shorter scenes, you want to show your reader what’s happening, make us feel like we’re really there in the setting, experiencing what your protagonist is experiencing in that scene, instead of just telling us or just listing events. Writers call this “show, not tell.” Let me show you an example.


B: “Here’s some vocabulary you’ll need in this part of the unit – narrative, scene, show don’t tell, protagonist, setting…Let’s talk about these words before we get into our work.”


C: “You will want to make your story happen in little bits. All those parts need to happen to a person in a place, and you need to describe that place so we can imagine it.”

I’m thinking that planning for more of A, and less of B or C, might be a way to help our kids talk like experts, without feeling like we’re just talking over their heads. Specifically, option A does a couple of things:

  • Repeats phrases in different contexts
  • Speaks in synonyms (“stories, narratives”)
  • Explicitly names not just words but phrases that feel like lingo or jargon (“show, not tell”) with enough words to make the jargon feel well-explained.
  • Uses words in context that is deliberately crafted to be helpful rather than missing or misdirective
  • Sounds excited about writing – like an invitation to the writing world is a really cool invitation to receive and is a field that’s worth learning the lingo of.

Trevor, in coaching us through our whitewater rafting adventure, did a lot of A, and we left the water pumped up about what we had learned, confident in our ability to try again (soon!) and tossing around words like “yard sale” left and right. He harnessed the power of language to make us feel welcome in the “club” of rafting, just as we want our kids to feel like insiders in the club of literacy. And he made me think about the power of trying new adventures in our lives, so we can experience part of what our kids experience when they are diving into new worlds, new fields, and of course, new talk.

P.S. — If you want to read my favorite vocabulary-related book, check out Bringing Words to Life, and if you want to go white water rafting near Denver, check out Clear Creek Rafting!

Sorting Out Talk

Everyone has a geeky teaching passion, right?

Vocabulary is definitely one of mine, and lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work on vocabulary with middle school science and social studies teachers. Word sorts, described in depth in Words Their Way, have long been a staple of many elementary word study programs, but haven’t always made their way up to middle school. I’ve been asking groups of middle school content area teachers, groups of students, and really, groups of anyone I can find, to try out some content area word sorts, using a set of words pulled from the Colonial America era.

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The idea of a word sort is in the name – you’re sorting a collection of words! In an “open” word sort, groups of kids (or teachers!) categorize the words into groups – any groups at all that the group works out. In a “closed” sort, you’d provide some labels for categories for the words to be sorted into.

Closed sort with three categories provided

Closed sort with three categories provided

One of many ways that kids sometimes do an open sort with these words.

One of many ways that kids sometimes do an open sort with these words.

Time after time, groups laid out their words and begin sorting, but quickly I became aware of what a lot of the groups weren’t doing – talking.

In one group of teachers, I watched teachers conduct a lively, impassioned argument over where a word should go, just by moving the card, back and forth, back and forth – without a word spoken.

In groups of kids, I often saw one or two kids emerge as leaders, and the others defer to them, sometimes without a word. Again, the existence of the physical cards stood in for conversation and although I could often guess at why someone moved a card into a specific pile, or imagine what their thinking probably was, I didn’t hear it and I wasn’t sure I was right.

I realized a few things, watching this. First, that this is a harder task than it seems. It’s hard to name categories for concepts, and it’s hard to describe in words how things fit together, when sometimes it feels like they just DO. Second, when we see kids go silent (or go unproductive – “Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!” “Yes it is!”), that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re shy, or quiet, or not sure of what to say, or not sure of the answer. The teachers doing this, for example, were all literate, thoughtful, eloquent adults, some of whom had extensive knowledge of Colonial America – and even they had trouble narrating their thinking. Third, I realized that the talking aspect of this task makes it much more challenging than if I had asked individuals to sort the cards – but also far more productive. The value of the task isn’t in getting the “right” sort, but in remembering or learning what the concepts mean and figuring out which other concepts are linked in different ways. This almost always requires some debate, or discussion. It may not require disagreement, but at the very least it requires a little noise.

This third realization is the biggest one, to me. Talk can be a way of processing information, revising thinking, deepening comprehension. Talk is a way to make thinking visible so that you can coach into kids’ thinking, not just their final answers. And talk is a way to make good instructional activities great. As teachers we spend so much time developing powerful opportunities for kids to engage with rich, vibrant materials and ideas – but kids’ silence can thwart even the best-laid plans.

This “silent play” is a pretty common occurrence in the classroom…so now what do we do about it? I’ll be honest – I don’t have seven color-coded fancy strategies to try out. Often, in my experience, just saying, “Hey, can you guys talk out loud about what you’re thinking?” has been enough. But for groups that need a bit more, one tip is simply to observe – are they talking? What’s the talk like? You could share these notes with the kids, too, asking if they see the same patterns you do and inviting them to brainstorm and set goals to change those patterns. A second tip is to try fishbowling a group doing a word sort, and talking, so that the other kids see how that talk might sound and have a vision of what you’re looking for. (For more on fishbowl activities, check out this post!)

So, the upshot? I think it makes sense to continue to nudge and push kids toward doing the talking in this kind of activity, even if it’s hard, and even if kids could perhaps make better (and certainly faster!) sorts independently. I think talking about words, using words, and talking about how to use words builds vocabulary and builds the webs that kids will use to keep track of and grow concepts in their content area studies. And I think that, like so many other facets of our school days, talk can be the bridge between our initial thoughts and the powerful webs of new thinking that school can help us grow.

“I Am Not Afraid of Storms, For I Am Learning How to Sail My Ship” – Louisa May Alcott

In Van Buren, Arkansas, one of my favorite places to travel, I was visiting a 7th grade reading classroom with a group of teachers. Unsurprisingly, a girl was reading a Pretty Little Liars book. As this franchise is one of my favorite, can’t-miss TV shows (and a bit of a guilty pleasure, too), I made a joke about it to the teachers. One teacher commented, “You know…I always ask kids, wouldn’t all the characters’ problems be solved if they just told an adult what was going on? Any adult?”

Yes. Yes, they would.


The Pretty Little Liars follow in the footsteps of almost every teen sleuth, adventurer, would-be vampire, and newly psychic debutante. They are tortured, stalked, and nearly murdered on a regular basis with nary a word to a parent, teacher, or cop. So many times, watching the show, it seems obvious to the point of absurdity that if the girls would just confide in someone, and probably many someones, about what was happening, they wouldn’t have to spend all their free time exploring abandoned warehouses and breaking into poorly-secured insane asylums.

To be fair, they do try, once or twice, asking for help, and it never goes well. I seem to recall a therapist in season 1 or 2 who wanted to help but was soon dispatched by “A”, the girls’ shadowy nemesis, and was never heard from again (or at least for a few seasons).

But the teacher’s comment resonated with me – and not just by reminding me that Pretty Little Liars is not the most realistic television show I spend time with. It also made me think about how this show is an exaggerated manifestation of what is inside a lot of kids’ heads. I remember, as a kid, and especially as a teenager, feeling quite convinced that the struggles I was facing were definitely different from everyone else’s, and so there was just no way a teacher or parent would have experienced the same thing. No. Way. It always seemed more logical to try to solve my own problems, no matter the cost, rather than to ask for help. Now, I wasn’t facing down an endlessly sneaky and inexplicably wealthy murderous foe, but hopefully, neither are our students.

What our students do face, though, can be just as bad – we all know the various “A”s that our kids deal with in their lives, from homelessness to bullying, from dealing with the kid who wants to cheat off their math test to coming out to homophobic parents. I don’t want kids to feel like they have to run to an adult for every little thing – agency is important! – but I also know that having someone in your corner for the tough stuff can make all the difference.

When we think about talk in the classroom, we often are thinking about academic talk. I know I am. But the other kind of talk that matters so much is the life talk that we hope kids will have – asking for help, sharing what’s on their mind, reaching out when the situation demands. I don’t know, but I suspect, that kids who know they can use their partners, their teachers, and their voices to solve the problem of how Kate DiCamillo creates characters may also be able to use those tools to solve the problem of how to stop crying after their parents split up. And if that’s the case, then our teaching has done even more than help kids deploy reading strategies and write with passion – it’s helped show kids a way to live.

Open Conferring Notes (Or: How A Case of Mild Hypochondria Helped My Teaching)

Some relevant backstory: I am a bit of a hypochondriac. I have been banned (by friends and family, not – yet — by the sites’ owners!) from more self-diagnosis websites than I can count. However, I stubbornly maintain an interest in reading about doctors and medicine and horrifying diseases.

Most of the time, this just makes me more anxious than usual. But every now and then, it pays off in some unexpected way. Like when I discovered this article on NPR, about the success of an experiment in which doctors shared their notes with patients. Apparently, patients who participated reported dramatic improvement in their understanding of their health needs as well as their control of and consistent use of treatments for different health conditions.

Immediately (because I am a teacher and because the article didn’t actually feature any horrible flesh-eating diseases for me to worry about) my thoughts went to teaching and to the copious notes I tend to take when conferring with students.

I started to wonder what kids thought I was writing when I sat down with them. Without really intending to, I had used conferring notes almost exclusively as a teacher tool – something we might use to plan, diagnose, write report card comments, and so on. Something professional and private, in the way that a doctor’s notes are, traditionally, about you but not for you.

As it happened, I went to a new doctor around the same time as I read this article, and she took my history with the computer facing me. Before she finished a section she showed me what she wrote and asked if that was right. I left feeling respected and listened to and a partner in my health care – just the way I want my kids to feel about their education.

Walking out of her office, I felt confident in her care and I felt empowered about my next steps as a healthy person – and I also felt pretty confident that my records were accurate. This is a bigger deal than I realized — apparently, mistakes in medical records can be a huge problem. People are sometimes coded as having ailments they don’t really have, which impacts later insurance costs and also, more frighteningly, the treatments they get.

In classrooms, we’re not risking performing surgery on the wrong organ when we get something wrong in our notes. But we are risking missing what really needs to be taught, and even more importantly, when we get it wrong, we’re risking missing an opportunity to connect with a kid.

We’re also, a lot of times, missing out on conference notes altogether. Let’s be honest – we all know we’re supposed to keep conferring records, but many of us aren’t, or aren’t as consistently as we’d like. A lot of times, I think the reason is that we’re not ever using them. They feel like busywork, or work we use to prove to someone else that we’re doing our jobs, which is never an especially motivating reason to write.

But what if we started to think of conference notes not as teacher tools, but as teacher-and-student tools? What if we changed the purpose and intention and power of conferring and conferring notes? What if, in fact, we thought of them not as a tool at all? What if we thought of conference notes as a structure or a routine, like gathering on the rug or keeping a writing notebook, something that creates time and space for something we value?

Here’s what I have been finding. When I share my notes with a kid as I confer with him or her, there’s a different tone to the conference. It feels more like working with the student, and less like interrogating or assessing them. Inviting a student to see what we’re writing makes it clear that we’re not writing our private judgment of their work, but instead that we’re taking them seriously enough to write down the words they say. It makes schooling feel not like something we do to kids, but something that kids actively participate in.

I conferred recently with a 7th grader named Christopher who was reading Night by Elie Wiesel. The teacher and I were initially a little concerned because it was a bit higher than his level, and we weren’t sure if he had the background knowledge needed to handle the book. We went to confer with him and see how he was doing with the first few pages. Here are my notes, which I shared with him as I wrote and afterwards:

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What we found was that Christopher had a much better grasp on the historical context than we realized, and that he had a passionate desire to read this book. We found a few different things that we could teach him, too, and invited him to choose which one he thought might help him the most.

The conference went well. But what really stood out to me was not the academic content of the conference – it was how interested Christopher was to look at my notes, to comment on what I wrote down, and to decide where his work as a reader should go next, and how we could help. Instead of sitting anxiously by a student, wondering when and if inspiration will strike – what is he doing in his reading? What is he good at? What am I supposed to teach this kid? – Christopher’s teacher and I were able to spend our conferring time really listening to what he had to say, engaging with him as a reader, and brainstorming some next moves he might need to make. The stress of figuring out the One Best Teaching Point, or of trying to look like a teacher who knows what she’s doing? Gone.

We all want to be the kind of listener, the kind of teacher, who inspires kids to not just do what we tell them, but to own their learning and push beyond what we have thought to teach. This is a tough job – certainly much harder than just assigning tasks or goals, no matter how well-planned! Open notes conferring could be a path to greater independence, more engagement, and stronger connections between us and our thoughtful, fascinating readers.

In the Fishbowl

Okay, raise your hand if you have witnessed partners conferring on writing drafts like this:

Student A: I liked it. It was cool.

Student B: Thanks. I liked yours too.

Teacher: Don’t forget to be specific!

Long pause

Student A: I liked when you said that thing about your dog.

Anyone? Anyone?

You’re not alone.

One way to tackle this is a fishbowl. In a fishbowl, you’ll generally have a kid, or a partnership, or a group in the center of the class, having a conference or book club discussion or some other component of your workshop, while the rest of the class watches, with some sort of purpose in mind.  There are a million and one ways to use this discussion strategy, but if you want to use a fishbowl specifically to highlight what works in discussion, you’ll want to focus the class to listen to the speakers not for their content, but for their process. (Some teachers do this same work with a video of kids discussing, if they feel like their class isn’t quite ready to demo it themselves, or hasn’t practiced that particular skill yet).

Recently I sat in on a fishbowl activity in an 8th grade classroom in the Bronx. Lynn Harrison, the teacher, wanted to set kids up to have more productive partner conferences, and so she asked two girls to model this for the class while their peers watched and listened for phrases and actions that made the conference work.

Meanwhile, I was watching for what made the activity work. Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Prep the kids in advance! It’s okay if it’s a little bit staged – that’s better than it being a complete disaster.
  2. Set up the rest of the class to watch for exactly what you want them to see. For instance, you could ask some, or all, of the kids to watch for what the partners say (jotting down specific phrases that seemed helpful), what the partners do (like eye contact, active listening, and the like), what the partners seem to have done in advance (like thinking of questions or troublesome parts they want help with).
  3. Remember that you’re doing this so that the rest of your class can be independently doing the same level of work later – so don’t participate, or jump in to “save” the discussion. If the kids demonstrate imperfectly, it’s fine! But if you have to heavily intervene in order to make it work, then the rest of the class will expect that level of intervention when it’s their turn to try.
  4. Make sure your fishbowlers speak loudly enough for everyone to hear! You might even teach kids a non-verbal cue to use as observers when they can’t hear the speakers (like Shana describes here)
  5. Debrief afterwards – lightly. Try to collect some of the key phrases or actions that the students notice on a chart, and resist the urge to personally point out every last thing that was done well.

Have you done this in your classroom? How did you make it productive?


The other day, an 8th grade boy named Fabio came up to me at the end of class. I had taught a demo lesson in his classroom, about structuring informational writing. And I had prefaced this lesson, as I often do, by telling the kids that we were here to learn from them and I hoped they would let us know what they were thinking when we asked. The class proceeded, and I ended up gathering Fabio and two peers into a group to help them get more writing done.

At the end of class, Fabio came up and said “So…what did you learn from us today?”


So often, my opening spiel about learning from them is more about me reminding teachers of what our purpose is, and reassuring kids that we’re not all here to judge them. I’ve never before had a kid take it seriously enough to find out whether we actually did learn from them.

Fabio, though, remembered what I had said, and cared enough to ask – that was great – but even better, he got me thinking about that crucial question. What am I learning from the kids and teachers I work with every day? Am I listening as much as I’m talking? Am I walking into schools with a learning stance?

What I realized is that sometimes I’m not – sometimes, I’m coming into schools with a plan (good) and I’m too focused or tired or harried to stop and think about the plan (less good). On this particular day, with several lessons and meetings scheduled, it was easy to focus on charging ahead through the day instead of pausing to enjoy the kids and enjoy the process. Fabio got me to stop and wonder. And, of course, this bustle and super-productivity is our everyday life – we’re busy! We’re teachers! But when kids ask us these kinds of contemplative questions, we have to take them seriously. If they bother to ask, we should bother to consider.

Here are three ways I’m thinking I can work on this stance – and I’d love to hear more in the comments!

  • Go into the day with a goal – to learn 2, or 3, or 4 new things in a day.
  • Make time and space for reflection – set aside a space in my notes, and a time before I get caught up in the bustle of commuting home, or cooking dinner, or prepping for tomorrow, to think about what I learned and how I’m growing from the places I go.
  • Ask kids about things I’m curious about – like “What do you wish adults knew about people your age?” or “What do you think the purpose of this class is?” or “When do you need to write in your life?” (or even just “What DOES “on fleek” mean, and is it a real word?”)