That’s 13,776 feet?


FotorCreatedA couple of years ago my husband and I took a 20th Anniversary trip.  The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone have always been on our our bucket list so we decided to go to out west.

I remember reading about the Tetons and the elevation of Grand Teton …. an elevation of 13,776 feet.  Almost 2 miles.  What makes the Tetons particularly awe-inspiring is the landscape next to it.  They are at at the edge of a flat valley which allows for the stunning views.  You can step back and appreciate them in full.  And there is no gentle slope up or foothills – it’s a fault-block mountain so – BAM there they are!  Imagine how you drew a mountain as a kid – those triangles popping up out of the grass.  That’s what the Grand Tetons looked like.  It is truly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and I’m a bit obsessed now.

We’ve camped in West Virginia where we climbed Spruce Knob, which is (for this area) a healthy 4,863 feet.  We’ve been to the Smoky Mountains several times and hiked to the top Clingman’s Dome at 6,643 feet – tallest peak of the Smokies.   I could not wait to see what 13,776 looked like!

But when we got there, I was surprised.  Please don’t take this for disappointment – but 13,776 didn’t look nearly as “tall” as I had imagined.  And that’s when it struck me – I hadn’t considered the prominence of a mountain.

Elevation is an absolute number based on sea level.  Prominence is relative – how much taller is a peak than its surrounding landscape.  Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Mountains has a prominence of  4,505 ft. Grand Teton peak is 6,524 ft.  I had forgotten that Jackson Hole area has elevations at 6,500 feet and above.  That means to my eyes, Grand Teton was only about 2,000 feet higher than Clingman’s Dome.  Taller, but certainly not the twice as tall as I was expecting!

This concept of elevation vs. prominence really struck me in many ways.    It made me ask a lot of questions to myself, and honestly, I’m not sure of all the answers.  Some of my thoughts encouraged me.   13,775 ft is not that daunting when you look around and realize that you’re already 1/2 way there and didn’t know it!  I didn’t think there was any way we could hike to the top, so I wasn’t upset that the trails would be closed.  Had I thought about prominence I might have been more mindful of opportunities to hike the mountain. I was so focused on the top, that I didn’t consider where I was relative to it. I wasn’t in that bad of a position to reach the top.  Certainly more doable than I had originally thought.  What an great mindset message for my students.  Yes it’s tall on paper … but look where we are already!

But it also made me really think hard about privilege.  Economic, social, racial, academic…. – it is much easier to climb to those heights when you start at 7,000 feet. What if you’re not at that elevation already?  What would Grand Teton look like if it was placed right next to Clingman’s Dome – reaching skyward at more than twice the height.

It’s easy to talk about every child reaching the same elevation -and it all sounds very equal and fair.  But we can’t forget that for each and every child, the prominence of that peak is unique.





Luck of the Irish…

…or How I Juiced-up a Tried and True Activity to Help Me Meet My Goals.


In my first post on grit I reflected on what I felt I could do better.  Two of my goals was to improve my STEM activity to promote the trial and redesign process and to create more authentic assignments.

Today we did our Leprechaun Traps.  Now, I know – I know – St. Patrick’s Day is next week.  However after the “big test” we needed to do something fun.

However, I didn’t want it to be a throw-away activity.  I ain’t got time for that!

The fact that we are trying to capture a very wily leprechaun didn’t lend itself well to the test and redesign process, but I saw an opportunity for authentic learning.  Goal #2.

We did it as a mini-PBL.  We set an essential question:  How can I design a trap that will trap a leprechaun?  We brainstormed what we needed to know in order to answer that question. We did a close reading activity of an “Informational Text” on leprechauns to answer those questions.  They had to pull facts from the article that they could use in their design and explain how they would incorporate that information in their trap design.

The POURED over that text.  They read closely, and deeply.  It said they were cobblers, they learned that was a shoe maker – they could disguise their trap as a shoe shop! Vocabulary, comprehension, application…  Bring it on!!

They built their traps, and through the working buzz – I overheard them cite the text while working with their friends.  (“It said they like logs, so I colored this tube to look like a log”  I heard that.  I ACTUALLY heard that!)

And then we tied it into our current Opinion writing unit and I gave them choices – a letter to a company, a script for a commercial, a brochure – that explains why their trap has an effective design.

And I know that it’s not about the grades – but I was able to take a reading grade by scoring their traps based on if they demonstrated close reading and comprehension by incorporating facts from the text as well as a writing grade from their opinion piece.

It might not have used technology – but no doubt they were engaged and motivated!

I’m including the materials that I created for this – enjoy…  Leprechaun Trap PBL

Still talking Discourse – Let’s Talk Discourse Part 2

Last time I started out with the nitty gritty of discourse.  How I implemented in my classroom on a practical level.  Now, it’s time to move on and really think about making it a part of your classroom.

Letting Go

The last time I ended with how I used it in guided groups.  This brings me to the question – if it’s guided groups, why aren’t you guiding.  Aren’t they being guided though?  Just sometimes they are being guided by each other rather than me. To be successful in using discourse in your classroom you have to be very, very clear in your mind what your educational-goal is for that day, but very open to allowing them to reach that goal in a way that maybe you hadn’t considered before.  And it’s under a watchful eye where I can pose a question or a thought – as one of the group members not as a teacher – that helps direct them to where I want them to go.  I vary the support I give the group, I vary how much information I give them beforehand, I vary the question.  What I never vary, however, is the idea that each group of kids – including those that might be below grade level – deserves a chance to think about complex ideas and voice their ideas.

Connect the dots

Finally, after any type of discussion, you need to facilitate them recapping, quantifying, and summarizing what they discussed so they see the direct connection between what they talked about and your day’s objective.  Sometimes you have to connect-the-dots a bit for them to see the picture they created themselves.

We’ll recap, make an anchor chart of their conclusions, I’ll weave what they’ve talked about into a direct instruction opportunity.  Discourse does not replace direction instruction, but enhances it and makes it more meaningful to them.

Anyone? Anyone? 

To wrap end let’s talk about where to begin – good discourse always starts with good questions. Does anyone remember the teacher from Ferris Bueller?  Anyone? Anyone? Boring questions = bored kids.

Kids love to feel smart, and a good question that they can sink into makes them feel smart.  Discourse in the classroom can be as simple as a turn-and-talk opportunity, but if it’s not a good question then it’s just turn and share answers or turn and repeat what I just said.  Not that there isn’t a place for that – but just to be clear – that is not discourse and does not stretch their thinking.

Developing questions that promote good discourse is – in my opinion – the hardest part.  Personally, I found it a little easier to start in reading.  We are just more accustomed to talking about the things we read.  We talk about that news article we’ve read, we have book clubs, we even talk about the news and movies.

Posing good math questions was a little harder for me at first but I think you’ll find though that the more questions you ask – the more you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t and it becomes much more natural.   I have found that questions relating to common misconceptions really get them talking – sometimes I’ll even pose them as a “who is right” question (I always use two Star Wars characters, it’s our thing.). A good source of this is look for common errors on tests/pretests.  Also Brain Teasers work well – I’ve used a lot from Eduplace Math. And of course – those productive struggle questions (questions that are posed before a concept is fully taught but where they have enough background to possibly figure it out).

For example – after introducing fractions, but before introducing improper fractions – I posed this question. “Represent the fraction 3/2.”     They worked with a partner to come up with a way and then they met in Math-Talk groups to share and discuss their strategies.   Another one recently was “Luke ate 5/8 of a candy bar.  Han ate 3/4.  Han thinks he should get more because 5 & 8 are bigger than 3 & 4.  Should Han get more candy? Prove your answer.” and “R2-D2 says that 3/4 has equivalent fractions.  C-3P0 says no,  that only 1/2 has equivalent fractions. Who is right.  Prove it” (you’d be surprised how many kids said C-3P0!).


One of my favorite things to get them talking about is wrong answers.  Sometimes we’ll also do a “My Favorite No” where I take a kiddo’s wrong answer, make a big deal out of the fact that although it’s wrong it shows great thinking – and have the kids talk about why it shows great thinking, but also where is the error.  I love this strategy because it promotes not only error analysis, but celebrates that growth mindset that we are always looking to include.

Go Forth and Talk

Discourse is an embedded and integral part of my classroom, but the great thing about it is that you don’t have to jump in all the way.     Make it work for your style, your classroom.

Now turn and explain your plan to your partner.  Partners, listen and ask them questions about their plan.  And…Go!