Putting More Meta into Metacognition


I’ll admit it.  I thought I was killin’ the metacognitive game.  My self-aggrandizement was palpable.  Then I checked my email…those rascals at KQED and their amazing research acumen…..Seriously, MindShift does what just the name says.  Just when I think I’m galloping right along, I come across another intriguing post that challenges my thinking.

So…metacognition.  Thinking about thinking.  That’s as far as I typically get in my explanation to my students.  And I thought that was enough.  Nope, we can go deeper.

The thing about fifth graders, in my experience, is that many weren’t aware that thinking was part of the contract.  Like many of us, they just signed, without paying attention to any of the clauses or fine print.  This is often the reaction I get when I ask them to engage in actual thinking within the classroom.  Surface level, they’re totally in – regurgitation is particularly solid.  When asked to go beyond ‘what is the capital of Iowa?’, many students falter.  They’ve not been called to such a task before.  Questions beginning with ‘why’ or ‘what if’ leave them stymied and shrugging.  I have asked myself: How can they not be able to THINK?

One often looks to blame someone.  Last year’s teacher – what were they DOING?  Parents! Why don’t they get off their phones, for goodness sake!  Media – why have we allowed it to become so ubiquitous? But really, how often do most people think DEEPLY?  That’s another post.

Anyway, I don’t enjoy the blame game – I prefer a few rounds of ‘so…now what?’  My ‘now what’ will begin with See, Think, Wonder.  I always ask for questions while reading – whether I’m reading aloud, students are reading silently, or we’re partner reading.  A good reader always asks questions.  If you think of a book or TV show with which you were particularly engaged, of course you ask questions.  Reflexively, within your brain, you’re shouting, ‘Why did he do that!?!?’ or ‘Holy crap – NOW what is she going to do?’.

These are not dialogues that every brain has – especially brains of poor readers.  These students never got the memo that reading involves thinking.  To them, it looks like ‘good’ readers are scanning the words – very quickly – and closing the book.  Maybe writing down answers to questions.  Done.

Does it sound too complicated to begin with text?  I have an easier way.  There are many commercially available photo collections which are very engaging and conducive to questioning and conversation.  Though many of these are intended for use by speech language pathologists, they can serve multiple purposes.

Are you wondering how you’re going to fit this in between your basal lessons?  At the risk of moralizing, metacognition trum..(quick – a thesaurus – I can’t say that word anymore!) takes precedence over your basal lesson.  If students aren’t thinking, what value is a worksheet on cause and effect?  Trivial, indeed.

Critical thinking – it peppers educational mission statements all over the U.S.  So let’s focus – this is the real deal, people.  Think about it.


Are You Sure That’s a Memoir?


During writing class recently, I was teaching my students how to write a memoir.  We were focusing on telling short, true, interesting memories from our lives.  As a 49-year old woman, I have plenty of stories to share, many of which are appropriate for children.

Where to begin?  I wanted impact….shock and awe….yes!  I had just the story. As my students listened in awe, I told them – THAT is a memoir.  I sent my charges off to draft their own narratives.  Most of them jumped right in, brainstorming stories from their own lives.  I told my students that accidents, illnesses and injuries were perfect fodder for a memoir. Surveying the room, I could see moderate engagement.  Over the next forty minutes, I had conversations with several of my fifth graders about their ideas.

Finally I came upon Alex.  He was very excited about his writing, and eager to share with me.  As I read his piece, I became aware that his essay – his impactful memory – a GREAT story from his life…..was about playing a video game!  I continued reading, unwilling to show my disappointment to this boy who took pride in his efforts.  It was, after all, his writing – not mine.  Who was I to judge what was significant in his life?

I asked Alex what he liked the most about his essay and gave him a bit of feedback – not about its substance, though, mostly just conventions.  I got to thinking…was that all he had to drawn on?  A video game?  Or had I simply not shared enough examples?  I hoped that I could get more out of Alex.  I hoped that the fullness of his memories wouldn’t be centered around graphics, AI, and noise-canceling headphones.

What I want for Alex is what I want for all children:  a generous, interesting, rewarding life worthy of a memoir.  That’s where the challenge lies.  Is it my memoir, or is it his?  It is sometimes difficult to be an educator and not foist my beliefs and opinions onto my students.  The breadth of what we as classroom teachers address with our students occasionally makes it challenging to draw the line.  To stop short of telling our students what to think, and instead, focus only on teaching them how to think.

My hope is that someday Alex will write about a great adventure, a heart-warming encounter, or a harrowing incident.  But that’s for Alex to decide, not me.

Red Bandana Sans Inhaler

I begged my mother to let me tag along with my sister, Sarah, to ride horses.  Sure, we all knew I was allergic to dogs and cats.  But horses?  Horses were never mentioned.  We were city people who knew little of horses – they were big and beautiful, the stuff of every ten-year-old girl’s dreams.  Pu-lease, I begged…..I’ll be FINE!!

Against her better judgement, my mother acquiesced. It was the perfect hot, humid, cloudy July afternoon.  Just right for cut-off jeans, a crop top, and a horseback ride. Ideal for an asthmatic who decided her inhaler would ruin the aesthetic of her outfit.  Kicking up dust along the country roads, we finally arrived and saw the horses.  Lustrous, enormous, and majestic.  I was going to look AMAZING atop one of these beasts.  I even brought my red and white bandana…because I was so country. (Yep, just a little narcissistic, even then.)

Shortly after mounting my horse, the symptoms came at me full force.  The weepy eyes, nose running like a faucet, incessant sneezing.  In the scheme of things, harmless.  I was, after all, an equestrian.  A little sacrifice might be required.  Dreams of being a horsewoman began to fade as evidence of my allergies appeared in earnest.  My multiple secretions were now joined by a steady, high-pitched wheeze, as my throat began to constrict.  Eyes swollen shut now….yep, time to dismount.  Even a rookie could see that I was in distress.

After trying to heal me with peanut butter cookies, my hosts eventually decided to abort the mission and get me home.  Finally home, I discovered that my mom had gone to a movie.  Dad was the backup – who really didn’t know what to do in this situation.  Even though I’d had asthma since birth.  Hospital?  Nah….let’s wait.  As I attempted to sob, but didn’t really have the lung power, he awkwardly patted me on the back, saying, “Now don’t cry….cryin’ ain’t gonna help nothin’.”

Thankfully, I heard my mom coming through the door.  She took one look at me and loaded me into the car. We drove straight to the emergency room, where I was saved once again by a shot of epinephrine.  My mother was never one to say ‘I told you so’, and this time was no different.  We’d hung out through countless IV’s, oxygen tents, breathing treatments, and doctor appointments.  We did agree, however, that I wouldn’t be riding a horse anytime soon.  I hung on to the bandana, though, just in case.