Critical Reading for Critical Thinkers

17th-century copper engraving

Think. It seems a simple task. According to the Oxford dictionary, to think means to use one’s mind actively to form connected ideas; to have a particular mental attitude or approach. As simple as the definition is, teaching ‘thinking’ is a complex undertaking. Despite its complexity, fostering critical thinkers should be a fundamental cornerstone in all classrooms.

Over the past couple of weeks, students were faced with reading challenging articles on the conflict between China and Tibet conflict and synthesizing their understandings in a presentation to be shared with the class. To navigate the complex texts, students engaged in active reading strategies. PQRST is one of the strategies students used to make sense of the articles handed to them. This strategy requires students to annotate their questions, connections, and understandings as they engage in each step of the following process.

When PREVIEWING, students are coached to pay attention to the features of a text – headings, subheadings, captions, diagrams, bold and italicized words. At this stage of reading, students begin wondering about the topic – making predictions about the content of the text.

Following the previewing of the text, students focus on QUESTIONING. During this stage, I encourage students to turn headings and subheadings into questions to provide a focus, followed by a reading of the text, flooding it with questions that pop up as they work their way through the article. I advise students to be patient and embrace confusion at this stage as they attempt to formulate the gist of the text.

The next stage reinforces the idea that multiple readings deepen understandings. Students are asked to READ the article once again, this time chunking the text – summarizing their understandings or noting connections as they go. Additionally, I encourage opportunities to discuss the text with a partner during this stage to further solidify understandings.

SUMMARIZING follows reading. It is at this stage that I encourage students to make sense of their newly formed ideas by organizing them into a mindmap that categorizes and summarizes the information. At this point, students have interacted with the text multiple times helping them to move beyond understanding and form critical opinions about the content. It is at this stage that students may get into heated dialogue about the topic. This is my favorite stage of the process, as students demonstrate they have established a conclusion and can justify it with evidence and interpretations.

When needed, to help prepare for an assessment, students can TEST themselves on their understandings by quizzing one another using the mindmaps.

Although multiple readings, annotations and mindmapping may appear tedious, it is important students are offered ample opportunities to engage in these strategies. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. I am going to need your help to reinforce these strategies, when applicable, to Humanities homework.

Friday’s presentations on the conflict between China and Tibet provided evidence that the PQRST strategy was effective in developing an understanding of a complicated issue. Students were able to communicate to an audience their perspective of the issues and provide possible solutions based on their research.

Of course the presentations were not without the usual bumps and bruises of awkward pauses, over-reliance on scripts, and factual inaccuracies at times, but overall students should feel proud of their accomplishments. I look forward to future presentations.

An example of a finished product…

Making Sense of Our World

Social Studies: Mapping Our Place in the World

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“Our love affair with maps is as old as civilization itself. Each map tells its own story and hides its own secret. Maps delight, they unsettle, they reveal deep truths, not just about where we come from, but about who we are.”  Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Cartography, an intriguing science of drawing maps that began as early as the 15th century with Ptolemy and accelerated during the age of exploration as explorers bumped and felt their way around the world recording their discoveries in conjunction with their beliefs. Perusals of maps from long ago are not only works of art but a curation of knowledge, political agendas, and philosophical beliefs. Maps of old revealed more than location; they disclosed a story. Of course with advances in technology, conjectures became more exact, and the stories, well, they became more subtle.

In today’s digital age, maps are indeed more accurate, yet not without bias. Bias is simply more hidden than in previous periods of time, which is why it is important to view such cartographic depictions with a critical eye. To avoid falling into the trap of ‘believing what you see’, viewers need to be encouraged to ask questions such as…

  • What type of map is this?
  • What is its purpose?
  • What distortions are evident?
  • Why has the cartographer chosen to distort the map in this way?
  • What information does the map reveal about the world?
  • From whose point-of-view is the map shown, and what do they have to gain from it?

Although these questions have not been made apparent to my students, they are subsumed in our overarching Essential Question, “What is my place in the world?” Students have been investigating the various ways in which geographers make sense of this question by utilizing the imaginary grid system of latitude and longitude to pinpoint and identify the location of places, exploring the five themes of geography to understand the interaction between human and non-human factors, and uncovering the challenges behind showing Earth’s surface.

As we delved into maps, it didn’t take long for students to notice the challenges in representing a spherical planet on a flat map. While plotting the location of capital cities around the world, one student made the statement, “This map is a disgrace to my country.” Already, the map’s intentions had become suspect in the eyes of a young viewer. This led other students to investigate the shape of their home country on the map to see if it too had been ‘disgraced’. Many agreed the map being used was indeed a disgrace to many countries, and that I should find a more accurate map that was more ‘fair’.

Although this is not where I had planned this particular lesson to go on this day, interest in why shapes of countries are distorted on some maps was piqued, making it a central point to revisit in later lessons on the different types of maps and the information they reveal. I’m curiouser and curiouser as to what questions the variety of maps will stir up in these young minds as we move through this unit on the core concepts of geography.

Students aren’t only learning how to navigate their way around maps, they are also learning additional skills such as how to read and take notes from non-fiction texts and synthesize their understandings in a paragraph centered around main ideas. Cornell notes, mind-mapping and other graphic organizers have been introduced and encouraged to help students identify main ideas and organize their thinking in a well-developed paragraph.

Language Arts: Learning How to Navigate through Life via Literature

Poetry

We acquiesced to Halloween by embracing the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe on Thursday. No, it wasn’t “The Raven” or even “The Tell-Tale Heart,” instead we went with his lesser known, but nonetheless, beautiful, “Annabel Lee”.  After identifying the narrative behind the poem, students fell into the rhythm of its verse – lulling the audience with the beauty behind its tragic love story. With only one practice, tables of students performed their assigned stanza. Forgive me for the poor quality of video; filmmaking is certainly not a strength.

Novel Study: The Graveyard Book

In The Graveyard Book novel study group, students have been investigating the elements of literature and the techniques authors use to reveal them to the reader. Since the start of the novel, students have been working to understand the protagonist, Bod and his home of the graveyard. Bod’s world has been turned upside down as he is forced to leave behind his home and family and make the graveyard his new home.

Author Neil Gaiman plays with our biases and generalizations regarding graveyards by creating an environment that symbolizes protection and education rather than death as we might expect. Bod has to make sense of his smaller world and how it fits in to the bigger world outside of the graveyard just as we have to make sense of how our smaller communities fit in with the global community.

Setting, mood, characterization and theme have been explored through symbolism, metaphors, similes and personification. To glimpse a view of what your child has been studying, please see the RESOURCE page of our Graveyard Book website. To get an overview of their studies, delve into the presentations and look over the documents students have been working on in class. Below are  a few photos of students in action discussing and collaborating on their understanding of all The Graveyard Book has to offer.

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Building a Community of Collaboration & Curiosity

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Many of us know Lewis Carroll’s Alice. As a child, we lay in bed, stealing a peek into her strange world. A world in which white rabbits run about stressing over time, mad hatters host crazy tea parties, cheshire cats grin impishly, and queens threaten to cut off your head. No wonder Alice had trouble making sense of herself in this odd universe. Alice’s resizing and struggle with her identity symbolizes the difficulties associated with growing up. Her identity displaced as she searches for her niche in a strange world.

Middle school students, like Alice, fall down the rabbit hole, and emerge in a strange world, a world in which they struggle to define their autonomy in an increasingly academic world. This is not an easy world for adolescents or their educators. As an educator of twenty plus years, I believe it is important to help students feel efficacious in their efforts to succeed in the wonderland of school. Efficacy requires a set of strategies that encourages students to tap into and make use of internal resources which allow them to develop and implement a plan to succeed. I believe a collaborative classroom that nurtures students to become independent, critical thinkers is integral to student success.

I believe cultivating collaboration empowers students to not only find their own voice but also find the voices of others. When the classroom environment is designed to build a sense of community in which students seek resources within the group and value collective work, it is understood that collective effort is more effective than individual effort. Such an environment fosters flexible thinking; students know when to integrate and when to assert their ideas and opinions thus creating a cohesive community.

Falling down the rabbit hole for most middle schoolers involves their struggle with asserting their individuality in an environment where social conformity seems to be the norm. It is important that students feel independent yet are part of a greater community.

Alice’s curiosity was a catalyst for her many questions. She certainly was not afraid to point out the idiosyncrasies of Wonderland; in fact she was willing to risk beheading to state the absurdities of the Queen’s laws. Like Alice, middle schoolers require a curriculum that sparks curiosity and begs analysis; although without the risk of losing one’s head. I believe it is important to promote critical thinking in the classroom. As educators, it is imperative we create an environment that cultivates qualities such as questioning, gathering and assessing information, interpretation, open-mindedness, and effective communication in solving intricate problems.

Teaching is a challenging profession that requires passion, patience and perseverance. I readily accept the challenge of providing students with a safe, collaborative environment that encourages independence of thought and introduces tools to help them articulate their thinking because I know it will help them thrive in the adolescent wonderland of education.

I am excited to begin another year of wonder and discovery with my students!