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.





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!

Let’s Talk about Discourse – Part 1

Discourse seems to be one of those school words.  In the real world we talk about
something – but in schools we have discourse.  Kind of like the word tardy – no one uses it in real life.  And I’m not a fan of the word, like the word moist, however, I love what it means.  But I digress…

It’s interesting to me how the nature of conversation has changed in society.  I remember spending hours upon hours on the phone with my best friends – talking about all the things tween girls talk about.  My heart sinking to my feet when my mom would call that a boy was on the phone for me – and taking the phone in my room and closing the door.

That’s all but gone now.  Everything is done by text.  The vast majority of my daughter’s communication to her friends is through social media and technology.  My son had spent an inordinate amount of time talking to a girl… with never speaking a word.  And in this world – efficiency is king and words, thoughts, ideas, are all boiled down to 12o characters or less.  And if speech = thinking, then we are allowing our kids to truncate their minds.

Often schools are the only place where kids today will talk to each other – really talk.  And if we want to expand their minds we need to allow them.   And the beauty of it is -it really works!

FYI – Hyperlinks will take you to a good resource for more information on that particular topic.

Not all Talk is Equal

Let’s be clear what we are talking about when we refer to discourse.  I’m not referring to just having kids talk in class, although that is a key part.  It’s the kind of talking they are doing that is important.  Share your answer is not discourse.  Explain how you came up with your answer and having your partner share theirs is.  Repeat what I just said is not discourse, explain in your own words is and your partner asking questions is. If you are going to take the time to allow kids to talk, make sure it is meaningful and purposeful and that above all else – it gets them thinking and then communicating about what they think.

Building a Conversation Culture

I always start building the skill of discourse in my classroom with direct instruction on how to turn-and-teach.  Or turn-and-share.  Or turn-and-justify.  Notice the and-something is a verb that describes what I want them to do.  Not just talk.  This happens on Day 1 of the year and I utilize Whole Brain Teaching strategies for this, but with my own spin to make it work for not just Turn-and-teach.

The next step is to expand it away from partners into literature circles.  My favorite technique is Laura Candler’s Talking Sticks.   I began using them with literature circles and found this technique to be highly effective.  She also has great information how to conduct classroom book clubs, which are a great introduction to more discourse. Just a side – I have never been a huge fan of Literature Circles with roles, especially where everyone has just one role (I have in the past done them where each person does a little of everything).  I feel it becomes a literature scavenger hunt and that it does not promote good conversation.  This is why I like Laura’s approach.  The concept behind that is that each child has 2 sticks, and put it in the circle each time they speak.  When they are out, they can’t talk until everyone has put in a stick – then they all come back out again.  (In my room – clarifying questions are free and the discussion director can ask someone a question without putting in a stick).  This way all kids are required to be engaged, but in a way of their choosing.  (And by now – we don’t even use those.)

But this didn’t happen at once.  I directly instructed.  I fishbowled.  I set them up for success.  We first started practicing good conversations moves with a partner, then expanded our circle.  For my strugglers I gave them cards with conversation moves on them that they could look at and use.  And don’t worry – eventually they will develop into a more conversational style – but start them with their hands on 10 & 2 on the steering wheel.

The secret to success to starting them is giving them something they are really excited to talk about.  In my room I introduce this process during a “Mystery vs. Mysterious”reading unit with Chris VanAllsburg books.  They LOVE talking about what they think really happened – did Fritz really get turned into a goose in the Garden of Abul Gasazi?  Who is The Stranger?  Because it’s open to interpretation – they really have an opportunity to put forth their opinions and defend them with the text.

In math, I begin creating a Discourse Culture by introducing them to the Number Talks routine as part of my whole group instruction time.  A Number Talk is a short conversation with the class – mostly about computation and mental math Number Talks: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies, Grades K 5, Updated with Common Core Connection by Sherry Parrish is the resource that I use, but there are others as well.

Math Moves

Once we have begun to show some skill with text talk and Number Talks, we quickly expand to even more math discourse.  We know the routine of talking in a group from reading and we’re used to explaining our mathematical thinking from Number Talks.  Now we put that together.

In truth – my math block is often more verbal than my reading.  I teach them math conversation moves that are similar to text talk moves, but tweaked for math.   I also find math lends itself to even more casual conversations than reading tends to do.  In addition to math talk, often they will work on a Brain Stumper  with a partner as arrival morning work or a rotation station.  We also play a game where they don’t know who in their group is going to be called on to answer a question, so they have to work together to make sure everyone understands. After they have finished Independent Practice, I’ll tell them to find a partner, compare answers, and if they’re different – talk it out to see who is right.

Conversations in Guided Groups

 In the conversation above, the kids are discussing the question “How does Chris Van Allsburg create a suspenseful mood?”  Our driving question for the whole unit was “What makes a story mysterious?” We had been talking about the fact that a mystery is solved, but the mysterious leaves you questioning.

My favorite is when I use discourse for their guided group time.  I’m a member of their discussion circle, but not the leader of it.  I can pose guiding and prompting questions but let them take over.

I can also differentiate the discussion to their level.  For example – on a lesson on introducing elapsed time I had my kiddos that find math a challenge just talk about which math tools would be best suited for the solving this type of problem.  They tried different ones – weighed the pros and cons – and then shared with each other their thoughts on each math tool.  The figured out on their own not to use a calculator, that a Judy Clock works great – and that they can solve using a number line.  For my on-grade group we solved a problem and shared what strategies we used.  For my high-flyers  – they solved a more complex problem, but also got into a discussion of adding time and regrouping minutes and hours.  In reading I might have my lower group talk about which evidence do they think supports the theme that we came up with together, my on-grade group might start with us together talking about events in the story and then they talk to figure out the together, and my high-flyers might come up with the theme and the evidence on their own while I sit and enjoy.

There are times in reading when I’ve had to get up from group to attend to an issue on the other side of the room.  The kiddos just keep talking.  They are running their own reading group!

So…. where is the guided in guided groups during discourse?  And what really keeps them talking?   I’ll talk about that next time!


Is it impossible?

Last night I started catching up on some time with some friends of mine – namely the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy.  I do not watch it to be intellectually challenged or to be inspired.

But there it is.  In the middle of my Mommy-escape time one episode really made me think and reflect on my teaching (something I was not looking to do at that time).  Imagine that?  You just never know where your inspiration is going to come!!

Throughout the episode a doctor (Dr. Amelia Shepherd) is giving a lecture series about the ground breaking surgery she will do on another character (Dr. Herman.)  A surgery to remove a massive brain tumor that no one but her believes is possible to remove.  And throughout the episode she is delivering a series of lectures about the upcoming procedure.

And the passion, the eloquence, the creativity, the connection she had to her topic – for that hour – made me want to learn about neurosurgery.  Made me believe I could!  Made me interested in something I never had thought about being interested in or thought I could be interested in.  Made the impossible sound possible – simply because she believed it so.

And I know it’s TV, but I thought “Wow!” “If for even 10 minutes a day I could teach with that passion, that conviction, what couldn’t I do with my kids.”

There is so much that we have to teach our kids that perhaps we think just is not age-appropriate -that it’s too rigorous, too complicated, too hard.  But if we approach it with that attitude we doom our lesson before we even begin.  We’re not giving them the chance to surprise us.  And nothing is more fun in teaching than to be surprised by what your kids can do!

I am not denying for a second that there are things that I feel like my kiddos are being asked to do that just aren’t developmentally where they are…yet.  Perhaps the standard is indeed too rigorous for most students, perhaps I have a group that even struggles with below grade level skills.  And it is incredibly frustrating and upsetting when you know that you are being held accountable for teaching something that you just don’t feel your students are ready for…yet.

But I really thought about the fact that if I go into it with that negative mindset before I even try, then my lesson is doomed before it begins.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I’ve lost my motivation to give my best because subconsciously, I think it’s a waste of time.  And certainly a positive mindset doesn’t mean that they are going to magically get it..yet.  But if I believe that they can’t before I even start, then they absolutely won’t.   It’s up to me to believe that today could possibly be “the day” if I just use the right approach or use the right tools.  That today is Yetday.

It’s up to me to see if I can try to give a Dr. Amelia Shepherd lesson and at least give them the absolute best chance I have.

I have to not expect the impossible, but expect that sometimes what we think is impossible turns out to be possible after all!

This blog post isn’t about making all kids reach some arbitrary standard, and it’s certainly not about kids not reaching that standard being the fault of poor teaching.  This is simply about not going into something with a “this isn’t going to work” attitude.

Before she started on her surgery she struck a superhero pose, stating that she had heard that it gives you confidence.  (A fact I confirmed from a TED blog).

So – Next time I set out to teach improper fractions to 8 year olds I’m going get REALLY creative, strike a super hero pose, believe I can do it, and see if they surprise me.

Depart from the Text

Growing up, I loved the Sunday Funnies.  And I really loved Bloom County.  Bill the Cat never failed to crack me up (Ack Ack Thbbft).  And I was obsessed with Opus.  For those that don’t know – it was Opus the penguin, Bill the Cat (was probably on something illegal), and a cast of other point of view characters.  They discussed and reflected on current events and pop culture in their own off beat way and I think the real allure was that It made me feel smart because I was old enough to get the jokes.

And somewhere, post college, I got “Good Night Opus.”  A picture book that has Granny reading Opus Goodnight Moon (a routine I became all too familiar with myself).  And the gist (the gist is something I’ve been finding a lot of here lately in my classroom) was that Opus didn’t want to follow the tired old routine.  He wanted to be creative and say good night to Lincoln and Tooth Fairy and get carried away by his imagination, which he gleefully did,  much to the chagrin of his nanny. Despite her warnings, he departed the text.

As an 8th grade English teacher, I used to read this to my students at the start of the year. I told them that this was going to be the year to take risks, to see how far they can take their writing and thinking.   It was our class mission statement (and this was before mission statements were cool.)   And I still read it to my 3rd graders at some point.

But at some point I forgot to take my own advice.  To depart from my own text.

Every day I ask kids to put themselves out there, to take risks by sharing and putting their ideas out there, even if it’s just for me to read.  Yet I’m not doing that myself.   So, I’m going to start blogging.  I was inspired by a recent unconferance that I attended – EdCamp Maryland, and specifically by a bloggers John Harper ( and Brian Cook (  Thank you gentleman for inspiring me to step outside my comfort zone.  And thank you Susan Verdi ( as well!

When I thought about what to title my blog I immediately thought of Opus departing the text and wanted to be as bold and giddy as him.

I also found it ironic that with CCSS, so much of my time is spent on telling kids to “refer to the text”  “what does the text say” “is the answer from your head or from the text.”  Seems kind of backwards.

So how to reconcile the two?  How to stay in the text, and depart it at the same time.  Kids need to do both.  Opus could not have departed from the text had there not been one to depart from to begin with.  He needed to understand the nature and content of Goodnight Moon to take his own path with it.  He had to have known the story so intimately that he could then make it his own.  He wasn’t just departing the text and leaving it behind, he was building on the foundation of it.   He was expanding it.  He was pushing the boundaries of what was.  (Pretty deep for a penguin).  And this applies to reading, writing, math – all content areas.

I hope to use this blog as a place where I can share my reflections, ideas, and tools I use to achieve my goal of keeping students grounded in the standards but with the creativity of mind and confidence to visit the milky way, Abraham Lincoln, and the tooth fairy.