Visible Thinking: I Used to Think . . . Now I Think . . .


Students’ thinking changes as we teach . . . and sometimes we need to identify those shifts in thinking as it identifies a new insight, or a new perspective, on something and this is where innovation happens!

You may discern this adjustment in perspective by using a Visible Thinking Routine (VTR) like “I Used to Think . . . Now I Think . . . .”  I am using this VTR as I work with my students on water pollution in the ocean.  We are investigating this topic because the setting for our novel, Flush, by Carl Hiaasen, is Florida Keys and the external conflict for the protagonist is water pollution.

“So, what is water pollution in the ocean?,” my students ask.  “Is it different from water pollution in Atlanta?,” they wonder. This VTR was used after the students were shown a video by NOAA, called “Trash Talk”.  This video explained marine debris, and what causes this water pollution in the ocean. NOAA does a great job explaining this to Grade 6 students because they talk at their level, use many cool graphics and a lot of motion/sound to keep the students engaged.


This routine helped students reflect on their thinking about water pollution in the ocean and explored how/why that thinking had changed. As the teacher having an objective view of this exercise, this has helped me consolidate new learning and identify new understandings, opinions, and beliefs.


Once we discussed this issue, I had a direction for ongoing discussions about the story. This VTR has provided a springboard for discussions about the external conflict in the story, and it has built empathy for the protagonist.

Now the students realize that the issue of water pollution in the ocean is bigger than they thought, and their concern has been magnified.  Now they understand the motives and responses of the people involved in the story.

And now my students are involved in the story . . .


Visible Thinking: What Makes You Say That?


As I continue my development of the project-based learning (PBL) initiative on the book, Flush, by Carl Hiaasen, I utilized my 2nd visible thinking routine (VTR).  It went well, as it provided many insights on the students’ perception of the environmental threats to the Florida Keys, which is the setting of the book.

This week, I implemented the VTR ‘What Makes You Say That’ in order to understand how students would rank the environmental threats so I could group them for further investigation.  Since we had studied six threats (based on an article by the University of Florida “Threats to the Florida Keys”), I hoped to distinguish student choice for my next step in the PBL.

The picture below shows one of those threats, Water Pollution, and the eight students who selected this as their biggest concern.  They based their choice on what they saw or knew about water pollution and they were able to build explanations for this choice.  This invited students to share their interpretations; it also encouraged them to understand alternatives and multiple perspectives as students talked about the other five environmental issues in the Florida Keys.


I was very pleased with this VTR as it elicited debates in the classroom when students wanted to defend their choice.  While this was not an intended activity, I knew that this was an important skill to develop in our students so I let it run its course.  At times they were trying to shout over the other students, which was a real teachable moment!

While this was a wonderful classroom routine, the results did not provide the grouping of student choice for the PBL.  So many students chose Water Pollution, that I am now investigating this one concern to identify issues for discussion related to this threat.  But that is how a PBL works; I need to be flexible with students’ interests in order to integrate Student Voice into this project.


Visible Thinking in the Classroom


Visible thinking routines  (VTR) are a powerful tool to help learners think more deeply about content, engage more readily in the learning process and become more aware of opportunities for thinking and learning.

During the month of October and November, I have a goal of using this teaching strategy at least once each week.  It is a powerful teaching tool, and it will work well in my upcoming lessons in Grade 6 Literature.

The students are starting a new unit  on the book, Flush, by Carl Hiaasen.  The setting for this book is Florida Keys, and I wanted to understand the students’ knowledge about this area.  While I identified the students who had been there for vacation or visiting relatives, it was important for all of them to think deeply about the setting so we could explore the environmental concerns in future lessons.

The VTR ‘See, Think, Wonder’ is a perfect tool for this.  I did this in a two-step process.  First, the students watched a video about a ‘road trip’ to Florida Keys.  In all honesty, I purposely showed them this tourist-trap view as this is what most of the students knew from their visits.  The students took notes during the video, and then I modeled ‘See, Think, Wonder’ with them.


Next, the students watched a video about the ecosystem of Florida Keys.  Again, the students took notes, but then they became the teachers in the classroom using ‘See, Think, Wonder”.  This conversation opened such a rich dialogue about the precarious nature of the coral reefs and the overfishing of the Upper Keys; and all the students were engaged in their learning!


In addition, this two-step process provided wonderful scaffolding of information and skills for my students.  It has prepared them for the next step of my project-based learning activities on the environmental concerns in this habitat, and I really see the value of VTR!  What type of visible thinking can I do next?


Making Connections With Students


As we begin the new year, my goal is to know and understand each and every student in sixth grade.  This always feels like an overwhelming task in August, as I have 76 unique and beautiful young people in which I want to make connections.  It was so much easier in Preschool when I had a self-contained classroom of 15 little ones!

Here are 3 steps I use in the first month to accomplish my goal:

  1.  Get to know their names:  I strive to know each student’s first name during the first week of school.  I do this by studying their pictures each night before class so I say their name in class or the hallway when I see them.
  2. Have them make name tents with symbols:  During the first day of class, the students make name tents with their names and a unique symbol that gives me my first glance into what makes them unique.  A drawing of a sport, a pet or even a smiley face gives me an opening for a dialogue that gives our relationship meaning.
  3. Give an assignment that reveals their personality:  Each year is different (so far) as I am still experimenting with the concept.  This year I assigned a ‘BioPoem’ that gave insights on things they love, they give and they struggle with in life.  I read these deeply and process them with care as it provides so much information about what is going on inside!

In addition to these three steps, taking pictures also helps me make connections.  During the first weeks, I like to put these pictures on Twitter so I can share the wonderful experiences in Grade 6 Literature class.  But then, I like to take pictures so I can share the connections with my students.  Since I see my Advisory every day, I begin with this one.

Menkus Advisory August 2016

There is nothing like a ‘selfie’ to capture this special moment!

The Finish is Just the Beginning


Fuse16 Conclusion

Bo Adams and his crew wrapped up an intense 3-day conference of Design Thinking at MVIFI.  As I completed this conference, I realized that I had just begun a journey of change.

If I wanted to bring design thinking into my classroom, I needed to change how I looked at my students and their abilities to address real-world issues.  I needed to change my ‘pre-packaged’ lesson plans and identify current events that would teach my students the real skills they needed for the future.

As I begin my journey, I recognize the ‘tool box’ of skills I acquired during this 3-day conference.  I can’t wait to use them!

Learning By Design


Fuse16 Group


We are on Day 2 of the Fuse16 conference, and I continue to have a great time as a student while I learn the “Discover-Empathize-Experiment-Produce” (DEEP) process.  In order to apply this learning, we work with local organizations that wish to make changes to sustain growth.

I have the honor to work with a local non-profit organization, Love Beyond Walls. According to their website,  “we exist to raise awareness of societal needs through technology and storytelling, and mobilize people to take part in it.” And they are good at it – really good at it -so we are helping them design a future to manage their rapid growth.

Fuse16 Spark Activity After Lunch

And we had fun with it.  This is what I want for, and with, my students.  I really appreciate the challenges and rewards of this approach to learning, and plan to design my curriculum using this strategy.

Infusing Design Into My Thinking


I have the opportunity to be a student for 3 days while I attend the Fuse16 conference at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (MVPS).  My first experience was working through a full cycle of DEEPdt during the DT101 Lab.

This was a hands-on experience where we DID the stages of design thinking: Discover, Empathize, Experience and Produce (DEEP).  I was totally engaged because it was not a lecture explaining the process – I was actually designing something!  The morning finished with a panel discussion with educators and students at MVPS to answer questions we had about bringing this process back to our classroom.

Fuse16 Panel

I look forward to learning more about design thinking, as this is a powerful way for students to BE designers.  Just like project-based learning (PBL), students will have the chance to “own” their own learning.

How the Maker Movement Makes Sense


Yesterday I got to ‘play’ in Studio(i), the new space in our school for the Maker Movement, and I had so much fun!  Along with other teachers, we were introduced to Silhouette Studio software and a vinyl printing machine to make stickers.  While I had problems printing mine, here is a picture of it:

Vinyl Sticker Maker Movement

This experience gave me a better appreciation of the ‘Maker Movement’, a creative learning revolution that is impacting our world of education.  Not that I was skeptical of it, this just helped me experience the ownership of “learning by doing”.

Every teacher wants their students to ‘own’ their own learning.  I have seen that a prepackaged lesson plan can deprive students of engaging on the level of ‘doing’ during a Making Experience. There is a saying in the Maker Movement that says it all: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” (Source:  “How the Maker Movement is Transforming Education” by

Yesterday I “owned” my own learning and developed some new skills.  I had a great experience, and I look forward to more of these alongside my students.  I can see I have a LOT to learn, but with a growth mindset, we will all develop the right skills for the future.



Teaching for the Future


Every teacher wants to make a difference in their students’ lives.  We do this by helping students develop skills they can use in the future.  However, these are constantly evolving, especially with the advent of the Internet in the classroom.  How do I know what to teach my Grade 6 students to prepare them?  I reflect on this idea because of a recent study published by ACT, an independent, nonprofit organization that provides services in education and workforce development.

The study, “ACT National Curriculum Survey 2016, Education and Work In a Time of Change“, has multiple findings, but the one that caught my attention is that we are not preparing our students for the workplace.  The study indicates that ‘nonacademic’ skills are falling short of expectations.  Specifically, “conscientiousness, problem solving, critical thinking, understanding the ethical use of information, and speaking/listening ” are needing further development.

I think the implementation of Project-Based Learning (PBL) will address these issues. While I am a ‘rookie’ in this process of integrating PBL into my curriculum, I can already see that it focuses on the development of important ‘nonacademic’ skills.  Our school has already focused on building important growth mindsets in our students, and PBL will go even further in the development of the 4C’s:  Collaboration, Creativity, Communication, and Critical Thinking.

I want my students to have the skills in order to be successful.  I think our classrooms need to continue to evolve to ensure that school prepares them for the future.






As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”  These words were spoken by John F. Kennedy for the Thanksgiving season in 1963. . . sadly, we lost this amazing leader shortly after this speech.

My goal is to ‘live by my feelings of gratitude” in my daily life.  I am grateful for the leaders at our school as they navigate the changes in education.  I also appreciate the talented team of teachers that encourage me in my journey to be the best teacher I can be. And I am grateful for my family and friends who provide the support I need to give this my very best.

And, finally, I am grateful for my students.  As I write ‘thank you notes’ for their end-of-year teacher gifts, I smile at their thoughtfulness in selecting items that show they care; Starbucks gift cards for my daily coffee habit or Barnes & Nobles gift cards because they enjoyed the classroom library.  But, more than anything, I thank them for their contribution to my classroom and sharing their passion for great books and authors that made us better.