Wednesday, August 01, 2012

#CyberPD WrapUp - Growing Our Thinking Together

Like Johnston, Gail Tompkins advocates for the creation of a community of learners in the classroom. In Literacy for the 21st Century: A Balanced Approach Tompkins (2009, p. 17) describes the characteristics of a community of learners environment:
Responsibility - Teachers set guidelines and expect students to be responsible. They also model responsible behavior. Students assume responsibility for their learning and behavior in the classroom.
Opportunities -Teachers provide opportunities for students to read and write in genuine and meaningful activities. Students actively participate in activities, for example, reading independently and sharing their writing with classmates.
Engagement - Teachers nurture students’ engagement through authentic activities and opportunities to work with classmates. Students become more engaged in literacy activities and spend more time reading and writing.
Demonstration - Teachers model what good readers and writers do using think-alouds to explain their thinking. Students carefully observe teachers’ demonstrations and then practice by modeling their thinking for classmates.
Risk Taking - Teachers encourage students to take risks while exploring a new idea and de-emphasize the need to always get things “right.” Students understand that learning is a process of taking risks and exploring ideas.
Instruction -Teachers provide explicit instruction through mini-lessons and provide opportunities for guided practice. Students participate in mini-lessons and apply what they’re learning in literacy activities.
Response - Teachers provide opportunities for students to respond to books they’re reading and to classmates’ writing. Students respond to books in reading logs and grand conversations and listen attentively to classmates share their writing.
Choice - Teachers offer choices because they understand that students are more motivated when they can make choices. Students make choices about some books they read, projects they create, and compositions they write.
Time - Teachers organize the schedule with large chunks of time for reading and writing. Students understand the classroom schedule and complete assignments when they’re due.
Assessment -Teachers monitor students’ learning and set guidelines about how students will be graded. Students understand how they will be assessed and often participate in self-assessment.

For the past year, I've had the honor of visiting two third-grade classrooms with two teachers who worked hard to create a community of learners with their students and I want to share a story of the students' view of this type of classroom.

To help students practice listening to each other and speak to and build off of each other's ideas, the teachers provided sentence starters to help the students develop the language of connecting ideas. The rules of engagement for this particular discussion was that everyone had to speak once before anyone could speak a second time and that the comment had to connect to another student's comment (agree, disagree, add to etc). After this especially intense discussion that included both third grade classes, the teachers asked the students to think about the process and reasons for having discussions. As scribes, the teachers captured the thinking of the students on a chart. The students said:

Growing Our Thinking Together
  • Our thinking grows like a balloon with each comment from a friend
  • It gives us confidence
  • We capture other people's thinking
  • We build on what others say, like knots in a rope (they had studied Quipus (talking knots) of Peru)
  • We cooperate, listen and ask for clarification
  • We restate our ideas
  • Everyone contributes
  • We yield to each other
    • Let less talkative people go first
    • Person with relevant information goes first (valuable)
    • Let the person who is responding to another go first

This metaphor, of growing our thinking together like a balloon, carried over for the rest of the year. If a student derailed a conversation, it was called “popping the balloon.” It was so powerful to hear the students recognize the power their own language had on others.

Like many others have said, I will need to re-read Opening Minds to really let the ideas simmer. It is my goal this school year to create a community of learners in my classroom where I learn along with my students and honor the contributions they provide.

If you would like to join the conversation about Peter Johnston's book Opening Minds:Using Language to Change Lives, check out #CyberPD on Twitter, or this week's host, Carol, at Carol's Corner.


  1. The Tompkins book sounds like something I should look into for a future professional read. You certainly made the connections between the two books clear.

    I also enjoyed the students ideas of relating conversations to filling a balloon and tying knots on a rope. Both of these would be good ways for visual learners to grasp what is happening in a conversation.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Holy cow! Can't believe you could not only synthesize Johnston, but also link it to another book. And I agree with Jill, the Tompkins sounds like a really interesting read! Her conditions sound like they might be grounded in the theory of people like Brian Cambourne and Don Graves- and I'd be curious to see her bibliography. Every single one of Tompkins' conditions is one that I value and try to use as a foundation for my practice.

    I also loved reading the third grade conversation. I learn so much from seeing master teachers at work. These eight and nine year olds were really articulate!

  3. Thanks for the concrete visual--the balloon gets bigger just like our brains get bigger as we think together!