A Window into Visible Thinking

As part of a professional development course through Harvard University, five teachers at my school collaborated to engage students in Visible Thinking. This Thinglink compiles some examples of this collaboration and highlights observations about student thinking and learning.
I hope you enjoy exploring this window into the minds of our students that showcases their thinking and deep learning experiences.

Making Connections with Virtual Museums

Museums are fascinating places. The curation and design of a museum display has the potential to captivate viewers and engage them in looking closely, thinking critically, expanding perspectives, and building empathy. For me, an epiphany moment occurred at the Frist Art Museum in the hands-on Martin ArtQuest room. One activity contained a blank map of Gallery Rooms, a collection of art reproductions on magnets, and the invitation to “Be a Curator!” This became an intriguing exploration of ways to organize the artwork in the empty gallery rooms. Should one curate by time period, art movements, thematically, or even as a comparison/contrast of artists? How would Van Gogh’s expressionistic field of iris dialogue with the abstracted desert landscapes by Georgia O’Keefe or the thrilling iceberg and volcano landscapes romanticized by Frederic Edwin Church? A 2019 visit to the National Museum of the American Indian provoked a different type of response as I viewed an expansive wall of merchandise, posters, commercials, and movies that throughout history had “branded” indigenous peoples to sell an American product and a perspective about these people. Part of the power of this display was the opportunity for viewers to linger with the images that they felt compelling and invite them to make their own meaning.

Curation is an art in itself, calling upon skills of discerning relevancy and critical thinking, and AASL recognizes this in the Curate Standard, part of which states that “Learners add value to a collection of resources by organizing and annotating them.” This school year provided an opportunity to immerse students in curation. As part of a Civil War investigation, 7th graders are being challenged to use their research notes to create a digital presentation (a virtual museum) of primary source images, historic documents, and analysis paragraphs. Though this type of multimodal exploration could be done in GoogleSlides by linking content to slides within the slide deck, these 7th graders will use ThingLink. With Thinglink, interactive tag markers can be placed on locations in an image to allow viewers to link to additional text boxes, images, or media (audio, video). Here is one example of a ThingLink by the Smithsonian Institution:
Fort Sumter Telegram. The organization of this ThingLink invites close analysis of a single primary source document.

Virtual Museums

For our students, the goal is to simulate the experience of a museum so that viewers can explore the students’ own thinking about the Civil War. Making Thinking Visible, a book describing Harvard Project Zero’s research, offered several helpful routines to deepen students’ thinking. One thinking routine, Generate–Sort–Connect–Elaborate, delineated the type of thinking students would use in this curation of a virtual museum.

In the note-taking phase of student research, students generated several ideas as they researched questions about the Civil War.

Students used the NoodleTools note card feature and titled note cards with brief descriptions. These note cards were used in the sorting process. Students sorted main ideas and supporting ideas; or gathered notes in groups for a comparison/contrast or cause and effect organization. This diagram shows an example of sorting into main and supporting ideas for a discussion of Civil War Technology:

The next step is to connect ideas and explain connections. Here is an example of how the sorted ideas would be connected in Thinglink. Note that links are not active on the following screenshots.

Example of ThingLink Link 7 that expands to a discussion of strategy. (See next screenshot.)
Strategy: Civil War Band Music
Discussion of how military band music was used by General Grant as a strategy to conceal the sounds of troop movements. Note that an additional link on the slide accesses an audio clip of the band music (links not active on screenshot, but you can click this link to hear the music).

A final text box (indicated by Star tag) links to a paragraph that elaborates on connected ideas and shares insights (see following examples). The more information tag on the ThingLink (indicated by an i tag) links to a bibliography of sources.

Example of elaborating on connections with own insights.

This is just the beginning phase as our students curate their research. It will be exciting to watch their thinking evolve as they generate, sort, connect, and elaborate their ideas in ThingLink and share with an audience their insights about the Civil War.

Celebrating Beloved Illustrators

This past year marked the passing of several beloved children’s book illustrators:
Eric Carle  (June 25, 1929 – May 23, 2021) 
Lois Ehlert (November 9, 1934 – May 25, 2021)
Floyd Cooper (January 8, 1956 – July 16, 2021)

In celebration of beloved illustrators, the following Illustrator Cards provide an overview of accomplishments as well as personal reflections on the contributions to children’s literature by these illustrators. A brief listing of resources also suggest further paths of exploration. You might even engage students in art activities inspired by Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert, and Floyd Cooper. What a wonderful way for students to pay tribute to remarkable visual storytellers.

Eric Carle Resources 

Lois Ehlert Resources

Floyd Cooper Resources

Gamify Media Literacy

Imagine this…

  • A set of biodegradable building bricks for sustainable building designs.
  • An ecology doll with its own binoculars, kayak, nature journal, and packet of native plant seeds.
  • A board game in which you advance ahead not by acquiring the most money or property, but instead by performing actions that help the environment.

Are these the latest educational toys in your local store? No, at least, not yet.
These are just some of the imaginative toys and games envisioned by sixth graders during a media literacy project. As a culminating activity in a Literacy Skills class, students used design techniques to create their own marketing ad for a proposed educational game or toy.

Students began the project by looking closely at Media Messages to evaluate how media uses a special language (special techniques) to persuade an audience.
Iconic ads such as
Wolverine “Got Milk” and
McDonald’s “You So Want One”
provided discussions of camera angles,
text placement,  slogans, color choices,
as well as use of celebrities.

Subliminal messages (underlying messages) were examined in the video commercials for Door Dash “The Neighborhood” and Sodastream. Door Dash’s message suggested that they keep neighborhood businesses thriving while Sodastream’s message projected that their customers would save the Earth’s environment.

Students also examined Barbie and Lego marketing campaigns; in a webquest they compared and contrasted how each company was targeting a particular audience. Barbie ads sought to empower young girls to explore careers with the “You Can Be Anything” campaign, and their “Fashionistas” line of dolls widened their appeal to diverse individuals as well as different body types. Lego marketing ads promoted imagination and creativity and suggested that building with Legos encouraged problem solving and resiliency, preparing youth for careers in engineering and science. After viewing these examples of marketing ads and evaluating how these ads target audiences, students were challenged to create their own marketing ad to be pitched to a professional client.

The G.R.A.S.P.S. Performance Task Assessment tool was used to set up the Marketing Ad design challenge. (G.R.A.S.P.S. was recommended in a Jay McTighe workshop that I had previously attended–McTighe is known for collaboration with Grant Wiggins on “Backward Design.”)

G–Goal: Create a persuasive marketing ad to promote an educational toy or game

R–Role: Marketing Ad Designer

A–Target Audience:
Choice A: Individuals interested in ecology or caring for the environment
Choice B: Individuals interested in Creative Writing

Choice A:
In a marketing ad presentation (through Zoom) you need to convince an Ecologist that your toy/game will promote a career in ecology or heighten interest in caring for the environment. (I arranged for Ecologist Suzanne Simpson, Director of the Bayou Land Conservancy in Houston to Zoom with students to be our expert Ecologist client.)

Choice B:
In a marketing ad presentation (through Zoom) you need to convince a published poet your toy/game will promote a career in writing or heighten an interest in poetry. (I arranged for poet Allan Wolf to Zoom with students to be our expert Poet client.)

P–Performance and purpose:
Use media language techniques to create a marketing ad to persuade an expert that your educational toy/game will promote career interest or heighten interest in the topic of the toy/game.

S–Standards and Criteria for success:
Marketing ad effectively uses images, color design, layout design, slogan, and additional text, celebrity, or media to make a persuasive ad. The design should feature a front box design with image and slogan and the design should also show a back of the box design that discusses the educational goal of the game or toy.

Oral presentation through Zoom to a professional expert. The presentation should clearly present the merits of your envisioned toy/game and its educational goal.

Creating a prototype of the toy/game is an option (but not required). The marketing ad and the oral presentation should clearly present the vision of the product.

The Market Ad designs showed a wide range of creative ideas.
Here is a comparison of two doll ad designs, one for an ecology client and one for a poet client:

Feedback from Clients
Ecologist Suzanne Simpson gave the following observation as she viewed students’ ecology games and toys:

“I never wanted to play with dolls when I was young. I was interested in nature. I wish I had these ecology-themed games and toys when I was growing up to encourage me in the career of being an ecologist.”

Poet Allan Wolf was impressed by the choice of Amanda Gorman as a featured doll and the theme of “dreaming big” to achieve her goal to be a poet. These students envisioned a line of Dream Dolls that were “imperfectly perfect.” He also enjoyed other students’ ideas for a creative writing poetry kit and a poetry trivia game–students even stumped poet Allan Wolf on one of the poetry trivia questions.

Not all student groups were able to present to the professional clients; however, all groups presented their marketing ads to their fellow classmates. The follow-up questions and suggestions from their peers provided thoughtful discussions on how the prototype ideas could be improved. This project was a fascinating opportunity for students to use their media literacy skills to design a persuasive Marketing Ad. The presentations to a targeted audience honed their communication skills and encouraged students to be receptive to feedback on their designs. Looking closely and evaluating media messages is a valuable 21st century skill, and this Marketing Ad project provided a challenging way to explore these goals.

Image Bibliography:
Amanda Gorman photo from
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington D.C, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Making the Case for Conversations in the Research Process

Years from now, when educational researchers evaluate how the restrictions of Covid changed classroom teaching, will experts discover that some of the most essential things about effective teaching remained constant and possibly blossomed in new ways?  Simultaneous in-class and distance-learning instruction poses a communication challenge for teachers and teacher librarians, but a recent Inventors project with 5th graders showed that making time for small conversations sparked the inquiry process and deepened understanding. Here are a few examples of how conversations led to “Eureka” moments for students as they researched inventors.

Launching Conversations with Short Videos
The Inventors research project provided wonderful opportunities for students to explore the Design Process. The below diagram was used as a touchstone as we began each class with a 10-minute exploration of how an inventor used the Design Process. The class discussion was launched by considering how the design of the spoon has changed over the years (from wood/bone to metal to plastic spoons), and students identified the plastic spoon’s merits (disposable/cheap) as well as adverse factors (non-degradable/environment hazard). Then students watched a video about an edible spoon created by Narayana Peesapathy, an inventor from India who created edible cutlery to lessen the problem of plastic waste in India landfills.

As students watched the video, they identified Empathy (problem of plastic waste), Ideas (several flavors; nutritious ingredients of millet and rice); Problems to solve (funding); and Testing (women workers provided samples of spoons to people in the streets of India). In class, students even received samples of edible spoons to taste.This initial inventor example promoted excited conversations and memorable connections to the Design Process.

Design Process

Other Inventor discussion starters included:
* Wind-powered Lego Car (video showed funding through a Twitter campaign)
*Thomas Edison’s Lab (video showed research lab is manned by experts in various fields)
*Lewis Latimer (video showed how inventors build on the ideas of others)

Modeling What Good Readers Do
Excerpt paragraphs from the Lemelson MIT website were used to model aloud what good readers do: clarify unfamiliar vocabulary and make connections to the text. The Visible Thinking Routine of Sentence, Phrase, Word was used by students to discuss important keywords to add to their notes. Using an article about Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the dishwasher, students discussed how Cochrane’s family and her education sparked her curiosity as an inventor, and they discovered how technology of the time (inadequate home water heaters and inferior soap) made Cochrane’s invention a success in hotels but not in households. It was not until 1950s when access to better water heaters and improvements in soap (as well as changing attitudes of women) made the dishwasher a success in the home. This was an important lesson that inventions and their importance can change over time. Science teacher Jan Fertitta was invaluable as she engaged students in classroom conversations to think more deeply about their inventors.

Connecting with Images and Primary Sources
Students expanded beyond text sources and located images using Britannica Image Quest and Advanced Google Searching (limiting search to site:.gov). Rather than just a portrait of the inventor, several students located patent designs or images that revealed more of the story of invention. One student discussed with me why she chose a particular painting image of Louis Pasteur. She explained that she chose the image because it showed one of his famous experiments to refute the theory of spontaneous generation. I thought that was an interesting comment, especially since the image caption did not provide that information. Later, while working with another student who was also researching Louis Pasteur, we located an article describing Pasteur’s experiment, and the experiment was indeed detailed accurately in the painting image: Pasteur is depicted with two flasks, one a closed-off swan neck flask that retained the sterile solution and the other an open flask with a cloudy solution, proving that bacteria in the air had contaminated the solution.

Louis Pasteur. Fine Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/107_3348341/1/107_3348341/cite. Accessed 8 Feb 2021.

Promoting Peer Conversations
Our current cohort classrooms have made facilitating peer conversations a challenge. To facilitate collaboration,the Language Arts teacher, Caroline Ferguson, has used Zoom breakout rooms as a helpful means for students to meet across cohorts (and with distance learners) for peer critiques and conversations during the research project. Students used CoSpaces to develop interactive digital scenes to present important aspects of the inventor/invention process. Students shared their developing CoSpace scenes with each other through Zoom breakout rooms, which promoted engaging and helpful conversations about good design, clear communication, and incorporating specific details from their research notes. One student was developing a digital scene about Jacques Cousteau and a thought bubble had simply stated: “I know, I will create the Aqualung.” After a small conversation and encouragement to use details from her notes, she edited the thought bubble to add specific details about the problem (see below). Students enjoyed the digital storytelling of CoSpace scenes.

Defining the Problem

Making Connections Among Inventors
Students used Graphic Organizers to develop 5 scenes for their Inventor CoSpace, and students made interesting connections as they added ideas to their graphic organizers. One student noted that her inventor, Milton Hershey, had his “Eureka” moment while attending the 1893 Chicago Exposition (World’s Fair), and that another student’s inventor, Josephine Cochrane, won an award for her dishwasher at this same Chicago Exposition. We both marveled that this must have been an exciting opportunity for inventors to share their new inventions and get new ideas. Students who researched Black Inventors (such as Garrett Morgan, Madam C.J. Walker, Charles Richard Drew, and Patricia Bath) discovered that in addition to their inventions, these inventors had a lasting impact by working for social change that would help the Black community.

All of these opportunities for conversations, whether in full class settings, teacher-student conferences, or peer communications via Zoom, promoted an insightful exploration of inventors. The Art of Communication to guide and deepen inquiry is a valuable tool in the research process.

Enhance Your Library with an Author Study

This school year transformed our middle school library in several ways as we adapted to safety precautions in response to Covid-19. One room in our library is set aside for quarantining books before librarians safely recirculate items to new readers, but, most noticeably, students no longer browse bookshelves or gather in groups to read in our comfortable seating areas. In a time of physical distancing, how can books continue to keep us connected? This blog discusses how students in grades 6 and 7 tackled this dilemma through an Author Study project, which challenged students to enhance library resources and build personal connections to books.

The Author Study project was divided into 3 steps: 
1. Curate 3 book titles
2. Research 3 authors (through author websites and interviews)
3. Create a book review or a video book trailer to be linked in our Destiny online catalog

*View Author Study project for sample videos and activities for the author research.

Curating a Personal Book Shelf

The library online catalog has taken on a new importance as students select books for themselves and as they recommend books for each other. Students used our Destiny Discover online catalog to create a graphical curation of favorite books for future reading. In addition to selecting one book they had already read and loved, students chose a book featured in one of our genre collections and searched for a third book that was an award-winning book title.  These 3 books became the basis of the next step, researching the author.

Researching the Author

Students used a bond phrase search to locate author websites and examined the “About” or “FAQ” section of the websites to gather details about the author’s craft of writing. Fascinating insights emerged, such as authors’ advice on the writing process or examples of how real life situations and people inspire storylines and characters.  One student discovered on Kelly Barnhill’s website that the author’s experience as a park ranger taught her the merits of “taking the worst part of the trail and making it the best” (a life lesson that she uses when the author approaches revisions in her own writing). 

Another student discovered on Rachel Vail’s website that Vail and J.K. Rowling both identified this as an essential writing tool:  “eavesdropping” on other people’s conversations.  In addition to the author websites, students used Teachingbooks.net to locate author interviews. An interview with author John David Anderson revealed that he writes for middle school students because he feels there is so much drama in what middle schoolers experience, and he identifies strongly with those students who are “outsiders.” Anderson stated that “language has the power we give it: it can break and mend, include and exclude, uplift and beat down. We get to decide”  (interview from All the Wonders blog).

Creating Personal Connections (Book Reviews and Video Book Trailers)

Students were challenged to enhance our library catalog by adding rich content (book reviews or video book trailers), which would entice readers to check out recommended books. This Creating a Book Review video explains the steps of adding a review to our Destiny Discover catalog. Rather than just relating a book summary, students were required to share a personal connection to the book.  Here are two sample book reviews by 6th graders:

The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas has a remarkable story plot throughout the book. The Magnolia Sword is a romance/historical fiction book. I have never been a great fan of adventure books, but this made me change my mind. Sherry Thomas did an amazing job of showing the main character, Hua Mulan. Mulan is on an adventure to find out secret plots, and she discovers romance. I really connected with the main character when she was struggling with her personality. She isn’t the typical gentle, soft-spoken daughter;  she is a courageous free-spirited girl. I admired her courage and strength throughout the book. I don’t just see her as a fictional character, but I see her as a person to look up to. (Review by Grace P.)

The book Rebound by Kwame Alexander was a very motivational book. The part that made this motivational and sad was the dad dying. I related to this book well because I have empathy for those who lose something or someone special. Also, I love sports and sports are my life. This book really helped me discover what kind of books I like, other than graphic novels. So now, I read poem books instead of reading a comic book. I recommend this book to people who love sports and who can relate to a story with tragedy. (Review by Luke L.)

Our 7th graders are currently working on book trailers, using Wevideo.  In this project, students evaluate their use of images and audio to respect Copyright and explore options of Creative Commons licensing and Fair Use. As a flipped classroom activity, I created videos about the use of Britannica Image Quest, Fair Use, and Creative Commons to aid this discussion of respecting copyright and adding value and repurposing creative content. Students are looking forward to a screening of their book trailers, and they will help to vote on those book trailers that meet a criteria of excellence, book trailers that will be linked to book titles in our online catalog.

There is a power in storytelling; it connects us and builds empathy.  Now, more than ever, libraries and books are vital ways to ward off feelings of isolation. Encouraging students to become advocates of books and reading enhances our school libraries, but more importantly, strengthens our school communities so that we can navigate today’s stormy waters.

Building Perspectives

“They didn’t see a child. They saw change, and what they thought was being taken from them. They never saw a child.” (Ruby Bridges Interview. Many Rivers to Cross. PBS.org. 8 Jun 2020.)

The New Orleans’ schoolyard often echoed with the joyful laughter of children, but on the morning of November 14, 1960, angry shouts punctuated the air; parents yelled as six-year-old Ruby Bridges, flanked by U.S. Marshals, walked up the steps and entered the doors of the all-white school. Years later, Ruby reflected on those parents’ faces, twisted with rage, and said, “They didn’t see a child.” Sixty years later, our society still struggles with injustice. Many factors could be considered in making a more just society, but, taking a cue from Ruby Bridges, this article will consider how opening up our vision, building perspectives, promotes empathy and engages students in discussions about social change. 

Recently I participated in a Smithsonian webinar: How to Discover, Create, and Share in the Smithsonian Learning Lab, and I used this tool to curate artwork, children’s books, Visible Thinking strategies, and videos to create a multimodal classroom guide: Building Perspectives. In using this learning module, educators can immerse students in close looking and in evaluating how art and stories powerfully present viewpoints on race and social justice. Explore the Building Perspectives learning module on the Smithsonian Learning Lab website.

Following is a brief overview of Building Perspectives:

Building Perspectives encourages students to evaluate ways that artists and authors help us to “see the person,”  expanding our viewpoints by developing empathy and understanding. Students will explore the following individuals and their contributions to the Civil Rights movement:

  • Ruby Bridges
  • Rosa Parks
  • John Lewis

Objectives: After completing this lesson, students will be better able to

  • Examine how artists and photographers reveal their own viewpoints about iconic people and historic events and how artists and photographers influence the viewer’s understanding of those events.
  • Look closely at children’s books and explore how both text and image challenge the reader to empathize and expand their viewpoints on race and social justice.
  • Implement Visible Thinking strategies to slow down looking and deepen
  • Use the Smithsonian Museum’s collection as a gateway to investigating and exploring perspectives of race and social justice.

The resources assembled on this Building Perspectives learning module can be used to promote classroom conversations about tolerance and social justice. In an April 27 NCTE discussion of the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, authors Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi stressed the importance of holding conversations about race in classrooms.  Jason Reynolds stated his goal as promoting “racial literacy,” and  Dr. Ibram X. Kendi commended teachers in their vocation: “We need to embrace teachers in the same way we are embracing health care providers–teachers are building constructs to aid the intellectual health of our young.  It is not impossible for white teachers to have conversations about race.” This recommended reading list, though not comprehensive, may be a beginning as educators consider books that can aid conversations about race in the classroom.

As recent events show, the struggle for social justice has not ended. However, the opportunity for a more just world lies before us as we look more closely at those who have inspired the fight for social justice, both in past history and in recent events. By examining perspectives with eyes of understanding and empathy, we can enter into conversations about race that will open hearts and minds.

Closing the Distance with Fine Arts Week

Art by Lily Stankowski (AOS class of 2020).

In a time of quarantine, people are starving for stimulation and connection. A feeling of ennui can overshadow us, and a sense of isolation can harm bonds within communities. Our school found a way to reach out to our community and close the distance through a virtual celebration of Fine Arts. Why are Fine Arts so vital to a school community? A university art professor once explained to me that to better understand aesthetics, consider the opposite, anaesthetics.  Anaesthetics deaden the senses, while aesthetics awaken the senses. We can use Fine Arts to shake us from our deflated moods, enliven our sensibilities, and strengthen a feeling of connectedness. 

Each year, our Fine Arts week includes music, choral, and drama performances, and the library contributes by hosting a Poetry Slam that showcases creative writing pieces selected for our Literary Magazine. Faced with school closure and Distance Learning, our Fine Arts week was
“Reimagined” through a series of digital portals to sample Fine Arts offerings. Here is an example menu of items for our community to sample:

Several digital tools were used to feature daily events:

  • FlipGrid https://info.flipgrid.com/–a free resource for educators, curated individual student videos for both the Poetry Slam and Pop Up Performances. The individual videos were assembled in interactive grids so that families could sample performances.
  • A digital Flipbook software converted the pdf of our Literary Magazine into an interactive view of the featured writing and art.
  • Vidigami was used to create a virtual art gallery, with folders of artwork sorted by grade level.
  • Spotify playlists provided music for students to enjoy during breaks in their school day.
  • Adobe Premiere Pro was used to set up grid views of multiple video clips, so that choral students were able to be heard singing individual parts in unison. 
  • Recordings of student theater productions became encore performances that families could view to enjoy memorable moments from our school musicals and one-act play.

Range of Ages, Cultures, and Voices

Seeing the range of talent from grades K-8 was heartwarming.  In the Virtual Art Gallery, a Kindergartener’s colorful collage sparked joy while colorful landscapes by 7th and 8th graders evoked moods of calm in a field of flowers or sunsets or celebrated the power of nature in vibrant scenes of mountains and seascapes. Popup performances showcased the enthusiastic talents of young pianists as well as displaying the astounding musical prowess of an 8th graders’ rendition of Hadyn’s Sonata. Families and cultures were also featured as a trio of siblings sang a Broadway tune and an 8th grader, her mother, and grandmother performed the Bharatanatyam in a split-screen view. Choral performances were synced in a grid view so that individual voices sang in unison. In the virtual Poetry Slam, a range of student voices were on display: whether travel writing (sharing the excitement of a trip to New York or cultural connections with families in Greece or India); nature writing (sharing the curious wonders of the Bayou); science writing (celebrating the discoveries made possible by the Hubble Telescope); fantasy (a shrinking curse plagues the royal members of a castle); science fiction (unknown terrors lurking in a trip through the Bermuda Triangle); or through personal essays (do you identify yourself with Gen Z or as a sixty-year-old man?). Musicals lit up computer screens in the evening as families gathered to watch videos of student musicals.

Art by Alexandra Madrid (AOS class of 2020).

Closing the Distance

This time of social distancing provokes a range of concerns. Some thoughts expressed in Zines by 7th graders described the sense of living in a “Backwards World,” the strange sensation of attending school on a computer screen and dreading the long summer, rather than looking forward to it. One student mentioned the mundane repetitiveness of life, that life is without “flare,”  while another student expressed a sense of  longing–she could “see” her friends in GoogleMeet, but had to “mask” her sense of loneliness. Our Fine Arts Week was an opportunity for students and families to experience how art in all its forms can close the distance, stir the emotions, celebrate our creativity, and affirm that we are a community that can connect, even in times of isolation.

Staying Connected

The coronavirus crisis has prompted rapid intervention by schools, and long distance learning has challenged educators and teacher librarians to develop meaningful instruction and learning activities.  One key concern is how to stay connected with students and engage them in learning beyond fill-in-the blank worksheets. Librarians are resource experts: our websites and LibGuides organize collections of ebooks, audiobooks, databases, and recommended websites. Finding information is easy; engaging with the information and making personal connections is the real challenge for student learning.

One of our national treasures, The Smithsonian Institution, is encouraging students to explore art, artifacts, and videos to build connections and deepen learning through thoughtful conversations.  The Smithsonian Learning Lab’s new GoGlobal modules highlight items from the Smithsonian’s collections; these modules were developed by educators for a variety of subject areas and grade levels. To support student inquiry, the learning activities incorporate Visible Thinking routines and Global Thinking routines from Harvard Project Zero.

Vincent Van Gogh: The Starry Night. Oil on canvas, 1889.. Fine Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/140_1643097/1/140_1643097/cite. Accessed 18 Mar 2020.

How can looking closely at Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night reveal ideas about the science of stars? Explore Sandra Vilevac’s Grade 4 Beliefs Unit that uses Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night to launch a discussion on how the night sky has influenced belief systems. Using a thinking routine called Beauty and Truth, students ponder how beauty (art) can reveal truths or, at times, conceal truth. It is surprising how accurately Vincent’s turbulent, glowing sky depicts images from the Hubble telescope. This learning module provides additional activities, such as animated video stories of the origins of stars from belief systems of the Mohawk, “The Never Ending Bear Hunt,” and Chippewa, “The Fox and the Stars.” For example, students might ponder Beauty and Truth in the story of “The Fox and the Stars”; this story describes why the stars have the appearance of being scattered in the sky and yet one can also detect patterns of star formations.

How can environmental artwork prompt us to social action? Aleah Myers’s GoGlobal learning module, Environmental Advocacy through Art, provides many art forms for students to examine and then challenges students to create their own artwork that will encourage society to protect the environment. Students might view the riveting environmental artwork, El Antusi’s sculpture Erosion, to evaluate perspectives with Step In, Step Out, Step Back thinking routine:

1. Develop empathy with an artist’s message (Step In) 
2. Clarify what you might need to investigate to understand the message better
(Step Out)
3. Reflect on your own perspective and “what it takes to take somebody else’s (perspective)” (Step Back)

Students can then watch the Smithsonian video that discusses the layers of meaning in this sculpture Erosion

These are just a few examples of the GoGlobal learning modules that encompass art, music, culture, science, history, and social action. These resources and thinking routines may spark ideas to connect your students in engaging discussions. Whether your distance learning takes the structure of embedded content in library websites, screencasts, school discussion boards, shared Googledocs, GoogleMeet, or Flipgrid, consider exploring some of the thought-provoking collections of the Smithsonian with the goal of guiding students in discussions that deepen inquiry through Visible Thinking and Global Thinking routines.

Tug for Truth: History Mysteries

Who doesn’t love a mystery? The adrenaline rush of following a trail of clues and the surprising detours of red herrings (I didn’t see that coming!) all combine into a final sense of satisfaction as the pieces of the puzzle start to assemble. And, some of the most memorable mysteries contain an ambiguous ending that lead you to continue to ponder a series of new questions.

Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight. 1937. National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/news/topics/earhart. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Captivating historians are like good mystery writers, and our school’s upcoming writing workshop with author and historian Candace Fleming provided an opportunity to introduce “History Mysteries” to sixth graders using Fleming’s book about Earhart’s disappearance. In Amelia Lost, author Fleming presents some of the lingering questions about Earhart’s disappearance during her flight in 1937 to circumnavigate the globe. Fred Noonan was Earhart’s navigator in this flight, and it is assumed that Earhart’s plane crashed when she lost communication and the plane ran out of gas. Theories regarding her fate abound, and I set up a “Tug for Truth” activity for students to weigh the evidence of one of the theories: Earhart and Noonan were rescued by the Japanese and imprisoned.

Setting the Stage for a Mystery
Using a large globe, I asked students to suggest why this type of flight, circumnavigating the globe, was particularly risky. Students mentioned flying over large stretches of water and the risk of running out of gas. Showing the communications log of Earhart’s last flight, students read aloud her fateful message to the ship Itasca that was sailing near her flight path: “Itasca we must be on you but cannot see U…but gas is running low been unable to reach you…flying at 1000 feet.” This was a chilling moment for students as they empathized with Earhart’s distress.

Radio Log of the Last Communications of Amelia Earhart. 1937. National Archives,       catalog.archives.gov/id/6210268. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.
Radio Log of the Last Communications of Amelia Earhart. 1937. National Archives,
     catalog.archives.gov/id/6210268. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Tug for Truth
Students were told that they would be evaluating a claim (theory of Earhart’s disappearance) by gathering evidence and sorting the evidence on a “Tug for Truth” line. “Tug for Truth” is a Visible Thinking routine that challenges students to weigh the merits of evidence. The essential question for this activity: Does the evidence support the claim as TRUE or NOT TRUE? White boards and flippable writing tables were set up with a tug-o-war line and this essential question. Students were given a red post-it note to write the CLAIM (Earhart and Noonan were rescued by the Japanese and imprisoned) and green post-it notes to write EVIDENCE statements as we examined primary source photos and articles from NYTimes and CNN. After students considered the evidence and wrote a brief statement, each student group decided where on the line to place the evidence.

Mysterious Photo
At the heart of this claim that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese is a mysterious photo taken at a Marshall Islands dock.  The small seated figure on the dock is suggested to be Earhart and the tall figure standing at extreme left is said to be Noonan (see the CNN article for an enlargement of the photo). Students circled these two figures in the photo and made factual statements about what they saw: 1) one seated figure with short hair appears to be a white woman and 2) one standing figure appears to be a white man.  Most students placed this evidence note near mid-center on the line–not definitively proving the claim as either true or false. They also wrote an evidence note that the photo was hard to see (blurry) and placed this evidence toward the middle of the line. 

Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll. National Archives, www.archives.gov/news/topics/
. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

The range of evidence notes got more interesting as students read the article from NYTimes.  Where would you place these pieces of evidence on the Not True–True line?

In 1981 an investigator interviewed a crew member about their ship’s role in a search effort
for Earhart.  Crew member reported no trace was found of her. The ship’s log also did not
mention Earhart.

In 1937, the year of Earhart’s disappearance, America was not at war with Japan.

In 1960s a journalist initiated several investigations in Saipan to try to find evidence to
support the claim of the photo as picturing Earhart.  No evidence was found, but the
journalist remains adamant that Earhart is pictured in the photo.

The “Tug for Truth” activity promotes critical thinking as students evaluate various factors, and it encourages lively discussion among groups as they support their reasoning for placement of evidence on the True or Not True area of the line.  For instance, one student said that an interview of a person many years after the event took place could be suspect because the person’s memory might be colored by more recent events or by a faulty memory. Other students pointed out that the ship’s log might be a more reliable piece of evidence (unless absence of Earhart’s name in the log was a deliberate effort to conceal evidence).  As you can see, students began to realize how sorting out truth can be complex and that many factors are involved in evaluating credibility. One of my favorite aspects of this activity was to ask students to select their strongest piece of evidence and place it at the end of the line (as you would place your strongest person at the end of a tug-o-war line). This encouraged further debates as groups justified their reasoning.

Extension Ideas
This CNN article was read at the close of the activity. I don’t want to spoil your mystery–but read this surprising article to decide if recent evidence has debunked this photo’s role in explaining Earhart’s disappearance.

Several other theories persist about Amelia Earhart. Students could explore the Bevington photo and discuss evidence found in a recent exploration by Dr. Ballard, as discussed in this
NYTimes article.

I encourage you to discover a “History Mystery” and immerse students in their own tug-for-truth discussion. Puzzling events engage students’ curiosity and promote opportunities for critical thinking and discussions.

Works Cited
Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight. 1937. National Archives, www.archives.gov/news/topics/earhart. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Butler, Susan. “Searching for Amelia Earhart.” New York Times, 14 Oct. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2017/07/11/opinion/amelia-earhart-photograph.html?searchResultPosition=4. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Cohn, Julie. “The Amelia Earhart Mystery Stays Down in the Deep.” New York Times, 14 Oct. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/science/amelia-earhart-robert-ballard.html?searchResultPosition=2. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Fleming, Candace. Amelia Lost. Schwartz & Wade, 2011.

Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll. National Archives, www.archives.gov/news/topics/earhart. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

“A New Clue in the Earhart Mystery.” The Earhart Project, Tighar, 12 Apr. 2010, tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/Archives/Research/Bulletins/57_Bevingtonphoto/57_HidinginSight.htm. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Radio Log of the Last Communications of Amelia Earhart. 1937. National Archives, catalog.archives.gov/id/6210268. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Wakatsuki, Yoko, and Ben Westcott. “Amelia Earhart Mystery: Photo Appears Taken 2 Years before Pilot Vanished.” CNN, 13 July 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/07/12/asia/amelia-earhart-photo-japan/index.html. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.