When children are in late elementary school, they are hurdling what seems to be a critical point in their development. At this point, children are just learning how to go outside their own perspectives, take the perspectives of others, and think abstractly. Due to the fact that this a critical juncture in their development, it is absolutely imperative to nurture it in all the ways a teacher knows how.
This year, along with the remainder of my team, I decided to do something called a thinking journal. No, this was not an original idea; we got the idea from another colleague of ours, yet another reason why I am so fortunate to work with so many brilliant and talented people. The thinking journal functions as such:
(1) Form an essential question (or use the one the teacher provides).
(2) Find something you “notice” in the text.
(3) Write what you “think” about what is in the text.
(4) Discuss what you “wonder.”
Now, this seems self-explanatory, but in my mind, the whole point of the thinking journal is to allow students to gradually work on this over time. They need to get comfortable with the tool, take risks, and watch their thinking grow as they challenge themselves more. With time and some good instruction, you can get your kids very successfully climbing over the developmental hurdle in which they find themselves in the late elementary years.
It wasn’t long before I noticed my students’ thoughts were improving, but I also noticed that they were not thinking as broadly as I would have liked. To me, it became important that they were generalizing–that they were not simply thinking about what was written in the text, but how that can apply to everyday life and the world around them.
But how in the world do you get kids to think that broadly? How do you make them look at stories and their own lives from a bird’s-eye perspective?
(1) Model it. I’m not sure that we realize quite the impact our everyday words and actions have on our kids. The first step in all of this is showing that you, in fact, have this perspective on literature and on life. Show them that stories and our own experiences are meant for helping us learn universal lessons about the human condition. By incorporating these discussions into your classroom, children will begin to make natural connections like this on their own.
(2) Use their examples to highlight what it “looks” like to think broadly. Build on each teachable moment, encourage them to take risks with their writing, and when you find one student who did something that even takes a step in the direction of what you’d like, use it as a mentor text for that day’s lesson. Yes, this requires you to be flexible, but this is what good teaching entails: flexibility and responsiveness to student needs.
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(3) Use their examples to highlight what it “looks” like when you don’t think broadly. No, this isn’t as bad as it sounds. When kids are learning, it is critical to create an environment where mistakes can be made. In fact, I believe it to be critical to create an environment where mistakes are encouraged. I always tell my students that I appreciate wrong answers and “bad” ideas, because we learn the most from them. When you find an example of narrow thinking, set it side-by-side with one of your examples of broad thinking. Let the kids compare the two. You’d be surprised at how perceptive they are!
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(4) Teach them to question broadly. After the kids finish reading a text, have them generate their own essential questions on Post-it notes and affix them to your board. While they are bringing them to you, sort them into groups–broad questions and focused questions. Just don’t tell them how you’re grouping them. Let them try to guess how you’ve grouped them; this will make the experience more authentic, leading to a discovery of broad thinking more on their own.
(5) Take advantage of every teachable moment. Be flexible, be responsive, deviate from your plan, and let the kids change the course of your learning. Because this is how real thinking occurs.