How to Become a Conversation-Starter

May 11, 2013

Recently my 5th graders completed the following project. It challenged their thinking and they produced some noteworthy writing in the process. I would love to get your feedback on how to develop this approach so I welcome your comments and suggestions.

Thank you!

Kathy Shields


Pandas don’t seem to get much exercise so are they really in good shape?


How to Become a Conversation-Starter

Science Magazine Article: The Research Process & Product        Duration: 3 weeks             

Writing is a conversation. It is an opportunity to hear yourself think and to let others follow along. The purpose of this project is to produce a unique magazine article on a science topic, by asking open-ended questions, leading to the collection of information from 3 unique sources and then blending the information in a new way that makes people curious. In preparation for this project, you examined several articles written for science publications. The Polar Bear article wasn’t just a list of facts about the animal; it asked the question, “Can polar bears be saved from extinction?”

Your goal is to ask a question that stimulates conversation

Reviewing the polar bear article, you discovered after much ‘close’ reading, that some of the facts cited supported the author’s claims, while others did not. You analyzed the writing and discussed the ways in which the author actually made you wonder even more about the original question after reading the article. This is your goal! Share your thinking and get others to keep thinking about what you’ve shared.

Potential Sources:

  • Hard copy books from experts found in the Media Center like, “Dolphins” by Dr. Diana Diver, trainer for Sea World.
  • Online Encyclopedias such as Galileo or Groliers (not Wikipedia)
  • Magazine articles, either online or from the Media Center from a well-known science publisher such as National Geographic or Scholastic.

Your goal is to teach your reader how to look at a topic in a new way

Your research introduces your reader to your unique point-of-view. It is NOT a list of facts. It takes the reader on a thinking-journey. The reader may never have wondered about this topic until you mentioned it.  For example, you may ask, “Do animals in zoos suffer from allergies the way people do?” Your goal is to teach your reader how to look at a topic in a new way and to get them interested enough to ask their own questions.

Developing a research strategy takes careful planning

How do you find the answers to your own questions? There may be a book on your subject; however, the chances are that you will discover articles written on this subject by experts. How will you take notes and turn this information into an interesting article?

Planning and Preparing to Write:

  1. Select a topic/subject to investigate. This is NOT the animal research topic from grade 3. If all of your research can be found in one book/source, you do not have a topic. Your topic MUST combine findings from 3 independent sources to make comparisons or to spur more interest in the subject. For instance: We learned that zoos are working to preserve the polar bear population. How are they doing this? Are they being successful?  Can they really prevent polar bear extinction? The only way to answer this question is to look for different examples and to compare them. Instead of drawing conclusions, you may end your article by asking even better questions.
  2. Brainstorm questions you have about the topic. These are open-ended questions that can’t be answered using a list of facts.
  3. Choose three open-ended questions to guide and structure your research.
  4. Plan your Google searches. Get creative.
    1. The topic may be, The Northern Lights and the search results provide you with information from NASA and the WeatherChannel. This is a start.
    2. How can you find out something more? Think differently. Google, northern lights in ancient times. This approach will expand your understanding and may provide an interesting angle for your story.
    3. Cite your sources.  Using the resource forms, fill in as much detail as you can such as the article title, the author, the date written and of course, the URL. This will make it easier to return to the article for you and your future readers. In your final draft, use the MLA citation guide to put the information into the standard form.
    4. You may use your wiki page to collect the citation information by copy/pasting the URL and describing the information you found on that site.  This works well using a table. Those of you who do online research with a wiki will always have access to your information unlike those who save it on cards or on the school server.
    5. Take notes by paraphrasing the information. Always record the source so that you can link your findings to the author within your own article. Your writing will have more authority if you cite your sources. Readers will trust your facts if they know you found them in a credible source.
    6. Wikipedia is not a reliable source for 1st hand information, but it is an excellent starting point to find credible sources.  Scroll to the bottom of the Wikipedia article on your topic to review the list of sources.  You may not have access to all of the books listed, but you can click through to some of the articles and websites you see. You can also Google articles by using the expert’s names.
    7. Now that you have developed a better understanding for your topic, having three different resources, you can begin to draft your article. Give an ‘elevator pitch’ to several peers to see if they find your topic worth reading. You must stress your unique point-of-view.  If they have questions, ask yourself if the article will answer their questions. If the answer is yes, you have found an audience! You may also ask them to provide a wish and a start to guide your revisions.

10. The final copy: Write each paragraph as if you were answering one question at a time and using 1 cited resource as evidence to support your claims. Conclude the article by tying the three paragraphs together. Your article may not answer the questions fully because you are an investigator not an expert. It may get your reader interested enough to continue their own investigation. That’s your goal!

Publishing your work

Your final product MUST include your citations and may also include 2-3 images that draw attention to your topic and appeal to your audience.


The last-best-thing you’ll ever not want to do on a Saturday

September 9, 2012

Why do the shortest weeks at school seem the longest? That’s the question we teachers asked each other all week long. After the Labor day weekend without launching into the rhythm of a regular 5-day week, the foreshortening simply added to the lack of symmetry from a planning perspective and caused a cascade of rescheduling and unanticipated turbulence. It was a recipe for exhaustion. So it was, after this marathon of sorts that I planned my Saturday around an EdCamp event. The thought of sleeping in began to take root in my subconscious. My friend Paula texted, “What about EdCamp?” It was Friday afternoon and we were planning to volunteer at the setup. “Why, are you changing your mind?” I texted this wondering if she could detect my own reservations. We decided to speak on the phone. I could hear her own tired voice. She’s a Media Specialist from a neighboring school and unlike some, she is responsible for teaching regular classes. Oh, let’s just go I declared, realizing it was me who got us into this and I knew full well it would be a wonderful opportunity to network and share trends in education. She responded in kind, with an indignant, “I was always planning to go!” Teachers have to motivate each other. We are all nearly tireless seekers of new ideas to take back to the classroom. The thought of Shelley Paul having to host the event was a reality check. It’s the least we can do we thought and helped set-up, then returned the Saturday morning at 8 for the conference.

It’s just difficult and I could list the many reasons all teachers need the weekend off, but in truth, EdCampAtlanta recharged me and inspired me to approach this week we a renewed dedication to inspiring my students to take charge of their own learning.

I signed up to ‘share’ not to present, which is what you do at these things. They are meant to be a gathering of the collective conscious, a way to expand and grow ideas rather than to purvey standardized thinking or repackaged goods. During my session, friend, Jen Wagner tweeted a hopeful, “keep me informed” about EdcampATL. She’s in California and has her ear to the ground on all things related to innovative teaching and learning. I decided to take a chance. I asked my group if they had ever participated in “Projects by Jen” and three of them raised their hands. I said, hey, why don’t I call her, maybe she can say a few words about her current projects. As luck would have it, she answered. “Kathy?”, she said with a smile in her voice. (we’re friends) “Hey everyone, say Hi to Jen!” Just like a classroom of students they responded chorally. Jen laughed. “This is a first,” she announced, “I have never been a guest speaker at a conference in my pajamas before!” We all laughed and Jen’s easy way put us immediately softened our faces. She encouraged participation in the O.R.E.O. project as well as the Holiday Card project. We only chatted briefly but the affect was palpable. She was what we educators like to call, a warm fuzzy. Relationships are at the heart of education and technology can help connect people. Some of the people in my group tweeted about Jen’s visit. They are following her on Twitter and she them.

There were only three possible session time slots and 9 different session events taking place simultaneously. It was like a buffet but you could only choose 3 items, so unfair! I didn’t see Paula until lunch and she was actively sharing with a bevy of media specialists. I was learning more about gamefication and making mobile apps from Catherine Flippen @catflippen. I also spoke with some high school teachers who are looking for ways to make their classrooms feel smaller (34+ students) by incorporating some stations and seeking the creativity commonly associated with elementary school practices. that shows some real divergent thinking on their part.

So the sessions ended, lunch was over and the smackdown complete. Paula and I darted out before our brains exploded. Just implement 1 new idea, was the suggestion, don’t try to do it all at once. Who said this? My mind was on pause. Paula and I were pretty quiet on the ride home. “Are you glad you went?” I asked rhetorically. She gave me an over dramatic glare and started laughing. I laughed too, all the tension melting into a moment of feeling elevated. Yeah, it was worth it. It was well worth it.

Questioning the Paradox: Teacher Leaders

February 26, 2012

I am generally regarded as outspoken and realize I should choose my words carefully, taking a step back to examine my own emotional triggers. Meeting regularly to discuss aspects of leadership has been very beneficial for me. Our weekly grad school classroom conversations have revealed to me an increasing skepticism about the future of education, the role of teacher leaders and the potential for disruptive innovations from the business community. When people speak about the current educational system as a throwback to the industrial revolution, it makes me wonder about the underlying assumptions. It seems to assume that corporate leadership dictates to educational leadership, that education is devised as a mechanism to support capitalism, and that human capital is groomed for production alone. This strikes me as a gloomy portrayal of Ann Rand’s Soviet school years; simply replace totalitarian regime with capitalism.

Use your brain

Questioning the wisdom of the ages..

I question the value of simplifying, reducing the complexities of society to reflect the top down architecture we in the US strive to avoid, by embracing the notion of Democracy. In contrast, however, our government and governmental systems such as education appear to have the earmarks of Socialism designed to provide the appearance of equity and uniformity valued by a people who desire fairness and equal opportunity. A paradox exists. Katzenmeyer & Moller (2009) too, seems to acknowledge the second class status of teachers, saying that although teachers, like miners rarely see the light of day, they would relish the opportunity to contribute their expertise to those who are in more elevated positions and are able to take credit for all underground success by virtue of a tireless and loyal staff. Even the title of her book, Awakening the Sleeping Giant evokes a sense that teachers, like Rumpelstiltskin, have been passive and ineffective in determining the future.

As for adopting a business model for education, I see opportunistic service providers attempting to generate a regular income by securing government funding as an avenue to prosperity. Just like textbook companies and other purveyors of materials, schools find themselves beholding to long term agreements that do not make sense over time. Schools cannot afford to be locked into contracts that are not mutually beneficial. Teachers need to be involved in the decision-making process. Think employee ownership models, instead of pay for performance.

I have developed more empathy for administrators and the expectations set for them by a top-down system. Knowing how committed my fellow teachers are to providing student-centered education, it is particularly incumbent upon me to act as a change agent, helping to remove barriers that may prevent teachers from reaching this important objective.


Katzenmeyer, M., & Moller, G. (2009). Awakening the sleeping giant. Helping teachers develop as leaders. (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Leithwood, K., Day, D., Sammons, P., Harris, A., & Hopkins, D. (2006). Successful school leadership. What it is and how it influences pupil learning. (Research Report 800). University of Nottingham.

An Octopus Will Lead Us

February 11, 2012

The future of education depends on quality teaching, localized decision-making and the ability to make rapid changes to address the needs of students. Technology is an important part of this change as it increases connectivity in learning, collaborating and leading students preparing all participants to accept and respond to change more rapidly.

Currently we have an hierarchical system, a focus on what quality teaching looks like without consistent modeling or support and an inability to make locally informed improvements to address the changing needs of the student population. We are not maximizing the tools of technology to assist with improvements and waiting for the cultures to catch up isn’t working. In order to plan for the future, we must be prepared to meet unexpected challenges, changes policies that become barriers to progress and support quality teaching by demonstrating it consistently on all levels. Information technology can be the fulcrum for change in the new paradigm.

To change institutionalized perceptions requires a paradigm shift; the shift represents a change in leadership from student-to-teacher-to-administrator, taking responsibility for thinking, learning and asking the impassioned questions. At this point students, teachers and administrators don’t even know what questions need to be asked to drive the change. They are engaged in self-preservation instead of truly creative, critical thinking. They are waiting to be awakened to a vision they can embrace, a vision in which they are connected not by the awkward existing structure of an old fashioned erector set, but by something sleek, new and responsive.

What does a shift of this nature look like? It’s a shift from land to sea. It’s a shift from the skeletal,mammal to the arthropod. Surprised? You should be because a paradigm shift never looks obvious, it looks counter intuitive at first. Consider this metaphor for distributed school leadership as an octopus. Three hearts, eight arms, no skeleton, the ability to change color and drop limbs when under attack. It is true they have a relatively short life span, but this means they are reinvented quickly time and time again, well suited to a fluid environment.

One person cannot begin to answer and should not presume to create a plan that embodies many voices acting like the impulses in this unique new paradigm but I can suggest some ways technology should be implemented in this new sink or swim underwater world.wikipedia

My passion for education stems from a desire to help students rediscover their curiosity, by providing them with ways to take charge of their own destinies. This can be accomplished using technology. Informational technology requires critical thinking and problem solving or it becomes no more than an echo-chamber for stale ideas. Teachers are needed to foster critical thinking, provide opportunities for exploration and to challenge students just enough to propel them into a successful future. Technology provides the fluidity needed to meet the challenges for the new paradigm in education for the future.

Target Practice

October 2, 2011

“I’ve been doing lots of thinking lately, apparently storing food for thought. After reading many studies and literature reviews I wanted to explore some new perspectives and this post reflects some of my current thinking. The process of trying on new perspectives interests me. It would be helpful to me, if you have any reactions to post, respond or provide a link to related research or discussions. Enjoy!” – Kathy

For years educational institutions have been feasting on a buffet of technological innovations. Father knows best, and our national leadership and other stalwart sponsors direct the technology spending and perpetuate the feeding frenzy, all designed to improve student learning. Like a reality-show-hoarder, schools have amassed a disconnected collection of tools. A brain numbing cacophony of screeching voices from educational stakeholders hides the silent retort of teachers bristling from offense and seeking asylum inside the confines of a classroom designed to produce good citizens and workers from the last century. And where are the students in all of this? It’s time for an intervention for the dysfunctional family we regard as our broken educational system.

There have been numerous proposals purporting solutions to the problems in education. The locus of research will address the victims: teachers and students. Neither of them is responsible for purchasing or implementing technology. They simply adapt their rooms according to a plan set forth by leadership and ask the essential question: How can the use of technology improve instruction, meaningful learning and retention of knowledge? This three-pronged question reveals that something is fundamentally wrong with the current educational system’s approach to technology integration. While research supports holistic, learner-centered pedagogical approaches coupled with curriculum formulated using the understanding by design methodology, the system does not practice either of these models when adopting new technologies for school integration.

Clamoring to adopt 21st century learning standards for student achievement and driven by the need to appease the public, school systems have measured their success using student-computer ratios and standardized test results. Low ratios imply greater access to computers among students and teachers; however the quality and consistency of the available devices may be a more critical consideration.Test scores don’t seem to bear out the hallmark of success. Where can we find the truth? The tree of knowledge has become an octopus suffocating its prey with the purple haze of confusion.

In all of this, teachers must still teach and students learn. It is a wonder that despite the moon-like of technological terrain, teachers are able to navigate an obstacle course designed to entrap them. Research demonstrates that teacher beliefs about education are fundamentally tied to their pedagogy. According to Judi Harris of William and Mary (2005) there is a need to “…demonstrate pedagogically appropriate uses of technology.” Harris argues that a technocentric view of technology integration is a bias. When it is applied in the form of instruments, reporting data on the state of technology integration, the results are viewed with a lens preferring constructivist teaching methods. Harris challenges this paradigm. “As discerning educators and researchers, we should question why teacher’s roles must change to integrate technology effectively into K-12 curricula. Surely the technologies themselves do not require this shift, as current teacher-centered classroom uses demonstrate.” (pg. 119)

“I conclude with Harris’ quote because as a classroom teacher myself, it challenges me. Teachers just want to do their best for students and yet the external forces seem to prevail, creating a dysfunctional dynamic in the name of progress.” -Kathy

A Few Predictions for 2011

January 3, 2011

Most predictions anticipate some kind of change and elicit an ‘ooh ahhh’ response. I, on the other hand, say, “Prove me wrong.” about some of these statements because I am quite sure they WILL NOT change this year.

By the close of 2011 we will still…

all have a spaghetti mountain of different power supplies for various devices, none compatible. (Come on, doesn’t this bother anyone else?)

be paying more for data plans on phones than we do for the same access at home. (2 year plans, please, we are like hostages to these companies.)

be more tech equipped at home than at school. (Hmmm, do we need more gadgets at school, or maybe just standards web access, yes that would be nice.)

not be a paperless society despite the growing number of web apps. (Copies = Work?)

be faced with a rising cost of living and more job insecurity. (Teachers job security based on student test scores. Do you think the students will feel the heat?)

not care if people can talk in holograms. (Please, I would rather have mag-lev skateboards and that was just pie-in-the-sky)

be wondering if climate change is actually occurring based on local weather anomalies. (It was so cold this winter!)

find people who have landlines. (2 people, 3 phones?!!)

wonder why people haven’t joined Facebook. (Identity is stronger, not weaker when you own one.)

add more tests to make sure students are prepared to pass more tests so teachers can keep testing, I mean teaching!

more and more talk, less and less action when it comes to educational reform.

Have you noticed anything that should change but hasn’t changed in years? Feel free to add it in the comments section.

Are Essential Questions really essential to students?

December 16, 2010

The other day as I was listing several EQ’s on the board for students to copy into their agendas, a student inquired, “Why do you have to write these questions every day?” I wanted to know exactly what he meant. It seemed to me that I had been following the charge set for by our curriculum department to use EQ’s to guide instruction and as a kind of end-in-mind target for students to achieve, by developing their own answers to the questions as an assessment of their learning. I probed for a clue.

How many questions does it take to determine authenticity?

The response was surprising. “Shouldn’t we be the ones asking the questions?” he persisted.Is it possible that by stating EQ’s we are robbing students of the curiosity they need to drive their learning?

I teach 3rd grade and it’s a wonderful age because students are going through a self awakening. They are becoming better observers of the world, connecting the dots and truly questioning things. They do raise questions and from time to time these question challenge me to take a closer look at my practice. I have always been interested in questions and questioning. Like most teachers you have been taught to use a variety of questioning techniques to get the neurons to fire more furiously inside a students cerebellum. Now I wonder, how can I teach my students to ask better questions so they can really learn what they desire to learn? Imagine a classroom of students who really knew how to dig and probe and question! It sounds exhausting but somehow it just might unleash the wisdom of creative problem solvers to tackle the challenges of the future. Self directed learning comes from asking intrinsically meaningful questions.

So I ask you, how can we get our students to ask more and better questions so they will not be satisfied until they discover the answers?

I found this resource, when I googled ‘students ask the questions’

“Real thinking never starts until the learner fails.” -Robert Schank

Speaking of Socialism

November 1, 2010

“Three branches and three levels of government”, I explain, diagraming the hierarchy of national state and local government on the interactive whiteboard. “Now you try. Match the roles with their positions in this table. Yes, Governor is in the executive branch of state government, just as President is in the executive branch of the national government.” We are studying the roots of democracy in 3rd grade Social Studies. “What is a socialist, someone wants to know, why is it a bad thing?” Interesting question and observation. So often teachers can hear adults speaking through the mouths of children. ” Socialism, hmmm, what does it sound like?” Someone says he hears the word ‘social’. “And what do you know about social?” I persist. It’s like having a party or having friends, several agree.” OK, we can look it up” audible groans. “I will look it up”, I encourage. “Let’s see”,

” Any of various political philosophies that support social and economic equality, collective decision-making, and public control of productive capital and natural resources, as advocated by socialists …”

Interesting, I think to myself. This sounds just like our school system. The students are satisfied, sort of, they have no further questions after we discuss the meaning of collective decision-making. On the other hand, my head is imagining what it would be like to have a school system created in the image of democracy. Why? For the very same reasons, ‘we’ capitalist supporters enjoy innovation, self determination and upward mobility. People who actually work within the governmental structure don’t enjoy those economic benefits. We don’t generate capital, so we can’t play the game. I see this incongruous match of public schooling with the teaching of democratic principles a truly fascinating societal tension producing unrealistic expectations for schools.

I googled the topic and found a number of people agree, acknowledge and in fact support the socialist agenda of public education. On the other hand, the detractors also feel strongly that these two philosophies should not coexist indefinitely. What are the alternatives?

Joanne Barkan digs very dig and supplies ample fuel for the fire of educational reform in her recent article in Dissent magazine.

Inspired Classroom Upadate – Wiki for Texting

September 28, 2010

Last December I started a classroom wiki. I kept it private and controlled and asked parents to request memberships to join as a viewer only. For me this worked well because I needed to feel in control and comfortable with the tool as a part of my Inspired Classroom model. Students responded very well but parents never really got it. Some joined others just let well enough alone.

This year I started a new wiki right away and got all the students on board within a week. It is open for public so parents can get to it easily without barriers. Students are the only ones with access as members and writers. They can create pages, add comments, pictures and have their own folders.

It’s been 6 weeks since we started school and my students seem to think the wiki is a great way to text! I have reviewed making comments, appropriate use and so on but they really want to text. Is it possible that in a year the students are so much more aware of social networking, texting on phones and twitter from their parents and TV that they expect to be able to text?

I am fascinated by their desire to communicate synchronously. Still, I need to develop writers who can communicate whole thoughts and express their ideas and opinions with support. Will the wiki really succeed in addressing helping students reach their writing objectives? I guess that’s up to me!

Update! They made some great comments today about our black widow spider.

Refrain from Critical Thinking

September 26, 2010

Too much critical thinking may cause you to crash and burn in your teaching career. Think less and enjoy life more. Teachers learn to over analyze everything and everyone to the point of exhaustion. Like too much sun soaking up every drop of moisture in a sponge, STOP drying out of your own thirst for learning, trying to become less “critical” in your self reflection. Each complaint, like a drop of oil in the sea collects with the other droplets and forms an oil slick.

By now you should know that my purpose for writing is persuasive and my goal if to convince you that less is more when it comes to being critical. I say this for your own good. I am speaking from first hand experience and extensive casual observation both on and offline. Teachers, we are too hard on ourselves and we are our own worst enemies. The very nature of our job has made us experts at finding fault.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.
Groucho Marx

Leave it to the politicians to get involved in correcting our educational system based upon our own contemptuous complaints. Did we turn the gun on ourselves? I say, hold your fire and start singing another tune. Personally, I love teaching and I love my students. I don’t plan to invite anyone under my microscope of self recrimination and I don’t think you should either. Less self “critical” thinking = bliss.