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October 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 2

What Are You Thinking?

Authentic questions about authentic work promote an exceptional grasp of the writing craft in this 1st grade writing workshop.

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On a Thursday morning in November, some 1st graders were having a conversation with their teacher about how writers use an ellipsis. They were studying how writers use punctuation in interesting ways to craft their texts. In the process, they were learning how to bring thoughtful intention to crafting their own texts with punctuation:TEACHER: Let's just talk. What are you thinking about an ellipsis? Give me some reasons to use it—how you would use it as a writer.CHASE: It could be used if you're doing a surprise. Like, “Happy Birthday!” and then you open the present, and it has a clown inside.TEACHER: OK, so you've got on the page, “Happy Birthday” and then an ellipsis, [you] turn the page [she does a page-turning motion with her hand], and then there's the giant clown coming out.CHASE: [Nods].TEACHER: So you've used it to leave the reader hanging until you see the illustration. That works. You could do that. So kind of a surprise element is what you're thinking about. You know, you turn the page and there's a surprise after you've used it.[A pause as everyone thinks].CAROLINA: You could use it like a surprise party. Like you're hiding under a table and then you put a little ellipsis and you say, “Surprise!”TEACHER: So what would your words bebefore the ellipsis? What would you be saying?CAROLINA: “One...two...three...” [her voice rises after each number, indicating the placement of the ellipsis].TEACHER: I hear it! Did you hear it in her voice? “One...two...three...” and then we turn the page and what do you have?EVERYONE: Surprise!TEACHER: Have any of you ever used the ellipsis at the end of something and just left it?[A pause as everyone thinks].TEACHER: Like Caleb. Let's think about your book. It said something like, “We had fun on the roller coaster.” The next page said, “But...” and the next page said, “I threw up.” So you left us hanging when you said, “But....” Wethought you were going to say, “But...it wasn't that fast” or “But...I'm so cool it didn't scare me.” But instead you were like, “But...I threw up!”[Laughter in the room].ANNA: It's like a guy hanging off a cliff.TEACHER: “It's like a guy hanging off a cliff.” I like that. Explain that. Tell us more.ANNA: It's like a guy hanging off a cliff and then everything freezes.TEACHER: Because that ellipsis is leaving you hanging there, like, “What's going to come next?”ANNA: Yeah. Like he's thinking, “Am I going to fall or stay on the cliff?”TEACHER: It's got you in the middle, right? You're thinking it could go either way. You don't know where the text is going to go. I like that, Anna.[Another long pause as everyone thinks].
Six years ago, I began studying as a participant-researcher in Lisa Cleaveland's 1st grade writing workshop, where this conversation took place. The small rural school in which she teaches is located in the western part of North Carolina, in the Appalachian Mountains. The writing produced by the students in Cleaveland's class showed exceptional insight into genre, craft, process, and form, and I believed this had to be the result of expert teaching.
During the 2004–2005 school year, I recorded more than 30 hours of videotape footage from this writing workshop. Collecting this rich data caused me to focus on the language of teaching in a new way and helped me see the importance of authenticity as an aspect of expert teaching, particularly as it relates to authentic questions, authentic study, and authentic work.

Authentic Questions

Let's just talk. What are you thinking about an ellipsis? This simple question—and the conversation it engendered—holds a great deal of meaning for me when I think about expert teaching. The students' talk is filled with the rigor of imagining what isn't there (“You could use it like a surprise party”), of making metaphor (“It's like a guy hanging off a cliff”), and of connecting the texts of their reading and writing lives.
An authentic desire to know drives the teacher's question. The teacher has deliberately repositioned herself, giving up the power and status that come from being the one who knows. She doesn't hold the answer to this question; the students do. In fact, because the question probes their thinking, they're the only people who do hold the answer.
These students have lots of experience with the shifting balance of power and status that comes from asking authentic questions. Across all content areas, in one-on-one conferences, and in small groups and whole-class gatherings, the teacher often asks, What are you thinking? What did you notice? Why did you do that? Can you give me an example? What are your plans? She has asked these kinds of questions so routinely that the students can't help but think of themselves as the kinds of people who ought to have the answers.
Let's take ourselves outside the world of school for a moment. When people ask questions, they generally try to ask someone who they think would have an answer. For example, if I have a question about something mechanical in my car, there are certain people I would ask and others I would never consider asking. Deciding whom to ask has a lot to do with what I believe about that person's capabilities and knowledge. And certainly, the person I approach with a question about my car can't help but understand that I see him or her as a person who knows something about cars.
When we consider this idea in light of the teacher's questioning, the implications are significant. In Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning (2004), Peter Johnston talks about “loaded invitations” that “construct particular identities” (p. 17). “What are you thinking about an ellipsis?” is clearly a loaded invitation. The teacher is teaching her students to think of themselves as people whowould be thinking about an ellipsis. She's helping to construct this identity in them, and their responses indicate that she's doing a good job.
Empowered by their status as the ones who know, the students engage in a qualitatively different sort of talk with their teacher than what generally arises from more traditional modes of questioning in classrooms. If a teacher primarily asks questions whose answers she already knows, students often learn to respond with a kind of “worksheet” talk, in which they fill in her blanks and wait patiently for the next question. Think about how different the conversation might have been if the teacher had asked, “What is an ellipsis?” instead of, “Whatare you thinking about an ellipsis?” These two questions sound deceptively alike, but they are worlds apart in terms of what they ask students to do. One question narrows, the other opens.
The teacher doesn't just ask questions like these—shemakes something of student responses. She uses what her students say to develop important content that they can see posted on charts on the classroom walls. Her students' responses aren't just filler to engage everyone for a moment before she gets on to the important stuff; their responsesare the important stuff.
Now there certainly could be content without students. There are definitions of an ellipsis in any dictionary or language arts textbook, and the teacher could plan lessons using these definitions as content whether students were there or not. But the definition of an ellipsis is really not the point of her teaching. The point truly is what the students arethinking about an ellipsis and how they might use it to fulfill their own intentions as writers.

Authentic Study

The conversation about the ellipsis took place during the class's study of how writers use punctuation in interesting ways to craft their texts. This context is significant for a number of reasons. First of all, what was happening in the classroom was truly planned and carried out over several weeks as astudy. It wasn't a series of predetermined lessons on different punctuation marks and their uses in writing but rather a study that would continue for several weeks. The teacher read to her students a variety of trade books in which the writers deliberately used punctuation to craft their writing. As her students followed along, she framed the author's work with the question, “What do you notice about how the writer is using punctuation?” Each day, she followed wherever her students' observations led the group, sometimes adding her own insights to the growing pool of insights in the room.
Think for a moment about the difference between “looking with students at how writers use punctuation in interesting ways to craft their texts” and “teaching them punctuation.” The two approaches sound similar, but actually they create different teaching and learning contexts. By framing teaching as study, the teacher shares power with her students as they examine books and work together to find as many answers to their question as possible. The teacher's expert listening helps her “follow and enter the active learning that is taking place” (Edwards, 1998, p. 181).
The teacher doesn't give up her role as expert or pretend that she doesn't know anything about punctuation during the study. She doesn't have to pretend. The question driving the study, “How do writers use punctuation in interesting ways to craft their texts?” is every bit as meaningful for her as it is for her students. There is no simplistic, scoped, and sequenced answer to this question that she could offer even if she wanted to. Writers could study such a question throughout their lives and continue to understand it in new ways.
Framing teaching as authentic study enables the teacher to be both expert and learner at the same time. This teacher moves easily between the two. For example, in another conversational inquiry during the study, one of the students noticed a writer using what he called a “happy mark” to craft a text. The teacher responded from her position of expertise that writers call this an exclamation mark. She went on to explain that “happy mark” wouldn't really work as a label because sometimes writers use the mark to show anger, fear, or shock.
When authentic study is the point of departure in teaching, students are afforded both the rich curriculum that comes from the study—How many 1st graders do you know who understand an ellipsis in such depth?—and the opportunity to watch an adult engaged in learning alongside them. The context that the teacher has expertly designed creates many opportunities for her to genuinely think in front of her students. By sharing this thinking, she shows them “the discipline required to learn the discipline” (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, p. 55).

Authentic Work

In this writing workshop, in addition to the 15 minutes or so that the whole class gathers for study, the students work independently for 30–40 minutes each day on various writing projects of their choosing. They make all their own decisions about topic, genre, organization, drafting, and revision.
Think about that work in light of the question, How would you use the ellipsis as a writer? To answer this question, students have to be engaged in authentic work that requires them to think, notice, plan, and make decisions. In other words, a thinking curriculum can't exist unless it's also a “doing” curriculum. Students can't engage with this kind of conversation in the way that these 1st graders do here—as people who can imagine how they might use an ellipsis in their writing—if they don't have a writing life in which to imagine it.
To make this point clearer, let me give a counterexample. Recently, I was a guest writing teacher for a day in a 5th grade classroom. I was asked to hold writing conferences with the students, who were working on writing persuasive letters to the principal about changes they thought the school should make. I asked the first student I met with (who had written about four sentences) to tell me why she had decided to start her letter in the particular way that she did. “What were you thinking?” I asked.
As one of the observing teachers noted, the young girl looked at me as though she had just had a frontal lobotomy. All my wonderful wait time provided no answer. I finally realized it was because therewasn't any answer. The student hadn't been asked to do any thinking or decision making in this writing at all. The topic had been assigned, a graphic organizer told her exactly what to include in each part, and when I sat down next to her, she was simply transferring the information from the organizer to a worksheet on which she was supposed to write the letter. The point is, it's difficult for students to answer questions about their thinking when the work they are doing doesn't require them to think.

Authenticity in Learning for All

In his classic book From Communication to Curriculum (1992), Douglas Barnes wrote,We cannot make a clear distinction between the content and the form of the curriculum, or treat the subject matter as the end and the communication as no more than a means. The two are inseparable (p. 14).
My own close study of one expert teacher has helped me see how true this assertion is: What the students are learning in this class is certainly deep and rigorous, buthow they are learning it is every bit as significant.
Perhaps most significant, expert teaching invites students to act with initiative and intention in shaping what happens to them throughout the day. Acting with intention and initiative is certainly important to their success as writers, but it's probably even more important as they become citizens of the world. They participate in a learning community that doesn't follow someone else's script, so they don't wait passively for things to happen. Instead, because of expert teaching, the students are becoming people who believe that they must make things happen.
In light of this insight about students, we must ask whether our professional development programs also invite teachers to act with intention and initiative. Are we providing professional development that grows from authentic questions, study, and work so that teachers experience the same authenticity that they will strive to create in their classrooms? How many of the conversations that we have with teachers start with, “Let's just talk. What are you thinking?”

Barnes, D. (1992). From communication to curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. (Original work published 1976)

Edwards, C. (1998). Partner, nurturer, and guide: The role of the teacher. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children (2nd ed., pp. 179–198). Westport, CT: Ablex.

Johnston, P. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children's learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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