Get in Their Heads

Often as educators, we rely on students getting the right answer to know if they understand the content. This isn’t enough. If we really want to make sure we are building strong learners we need to get inside their heads, and we need to open up ours to show them how it’s done. We need to make thinking visible.

Easy enough right? Well, when you have 150 kids at least cycling through your classroom in one day, knowing what each of them is thinking can seem like a monumental task. Together let’s break down some ways we can help students make their thinking visible!


Sentence-Phrase-Word is a great strategy to help students break down their readings and revie the text. I think this strategy can really easily be adapted to science readings to help students engage with a type of writing that might be new to them!

Sentence-Phrase-Word: Capturing the essence of a text | Art Least
[Alt Text: Different colored post-it notes on chart paper labeled sentence, phrase, word, and themes]

There are a few simple steps, but try to follow them all to get the most out of your reflections!

  1. Set Up: Make sure you give your learners time to read the text. Encourage students to highlight and annotate the reading in a way that helps them!
  2. Selecting a sentence-phrase-word: As students to identify a sentence that stuck with them and helped them understand the text, a phrase that engaged them in a meaningful way, and a word that caught their attention.
  3. Share selections: Ask students to share their sentence-phrase-word in small groups, making sure to explain why they chose it! Students should all share their sentence, then phrase, then word, so that a small disscusion can occur about simmilarities and differences between each other.
  4. Invite reflection on the conversation: Have the group identify common themese and the implications of such. Make sure they also identify the parts of the text that are not represented and why that might be.
  5. Share the thinking: Have students post their documentation for their sharing and discusions and help students reflect on their current understanding of the text.

How would I use this strategy in my classroom?

This is a great strategy for breaking down readings, and I would use it after particularly difficult readings that students need help breaking down and further understanding. I think that this can be a great way to help students learn how to read scientific articles!

Chalk Talk

Chalk talk is a great way to make space in your classroom discussions for students who are not as comfortable speaking out or sharing their ideas. Chalk Talk also helps us as teachers give “air time” to every student. Essentially Chalk Talk is a discussion happening on chart paper.

[Alt text: 3 chart papers with different prompts in the middle, surrounded by students thinking and ideas]

And once again, it doesn’t take a lot to run, but can be super helpful if you follow the steps!

  1. Set Up: Write each of the promps on chart paper and post them around the room. You can have students move freely around the room or assign them to groups. Make sure each student has a writing utensile!
  2. Present the Chalk Talk Prompt: And ask students to think about their rections, thoughts, and questions.
  3. Circulate: Give students time to work around the chalk talk papers adding their reactions, thoughts, and questions to the prompt as well as to other students ideas. As more students add their ideas to the page students should begin responding to each other more than the prompt!
  4. Facilitate: This my take some reminding though, help students by prompting the types of responses students can make. Make sure you give students and idea of how much time is available.
  5. Share the thinking: Allow students to read what students have written in response to their intitial thinking and if time allows, review the various chalk talks!

How would I use this strategy in my classroom?

I would use this strategy when discussing different scientific theories, or for students to use after reading. I think that this could also be an interesting way for students to develop inquiry-based activities where they ask a question and chalk talk about ways to answer that questions!

I Used to Think…Now I Think

“I used to think…Now I think” is a great tool to help students break down their current understanding of a topic. It helps show student growth, and that having misconceptions or different understandings is okay because we all grow from different places. Make sure you show students your growth too!

Visible Thinking - Meredith Clark's Electronic Portfolio
[Alt text: Sheet of binder paper with I used to think…now I think sentences about angles. The bottom of the page has different angle and shape drawings and a time stamp]

Like our other two strategies, there are a few steps, but they are all important!

  1. Set Up: Make sure you take the time to explain to your students what they are doing, as well as the purpose of reflection. Figure out where you want students to record their reflections. Is it on a paper they hand you, on a notebook they keep with them?
  2. Encourage Individual Reflection: Students will work through their reflection using the sentence starters “I used to think…” and “Now I think…” And should do so individually so that it best reflects the individual. You can help students by asking questions that push them further and help them remember!
  3. Share the Thinking: Have students share in small groups or as a whole class about their reflection. When first starting out it can help to do so as a whole group so you can help students dive deeper!

How would I use this strategy in my classroom?

I think that this is a great strategy to end a new unit, especially if you know that the topic of the unit comes with a lot of misconceptions. I think this would be great in an astronomy class where students often have misconceptions that get addressed through learning. And it will help me know which misconceptions still need to be addressed.

Why do we do this?

Yes, taking the time out of the day to do these strategies can seem like a lot of effort, but at the end of the day making thinking visible helps both us and our students. We learn what goes on inside our student’s heads, and our students learn strategies to process what they learn. Strategies that can be taken out of the science classroom and build lifelong learners!

Chalk Talk as an Ice Breaker — lindsaykveitch
[Alt text: students working on a chalk talk paper]

So, what strategy will you use?

Happy learning!

<3 Ms. Brennan


  1. Grace!

    I think the setup comes from explaining it to your students, more than physically setting them up in the classroom. On that end, I think it would just fit into your normal prep time. I definitely wouldn’t recommend cutting corners by shortening the explanation. But over time the more you use the strategy or the more you use these strategies with your students the more comfortable they become with it and the quicker they’ll just jump right into the activity!

  2. Luke!

    I think it would be great to show them in action. As long as you can convince them to give it a shot, I think it can become clear of their worth. I’m also sure that while these strategies may seem childish if you look at examples of younger students using them, the strategies adapt to the students themself. The benefit of using these strategies is that they are flexible and adaptable to student needs. So as long as you can convince them to give it a shot and you’re helping your students make the most of it, I’m sure they’ll see that this isn’t childish or a distraction.

  3. Hey Ellie,

    I really liked your post and how you modeled how you would use the strategy in your future classroom. My favorite was the chalk talk and how you stated it gives them “air time” sounds very much like a teacher word that could brighten up the classroom. I think you’re right about it being a lot of effort to setup in the classroom, but what could you do to make it easier to implement these strategies with as little effort as possible?

  4. Hi Ellie!
    I thought your post was great, and the strategies that you chose would be fantastic to help students understand their own thinking process. I appreciated that you made sure to emphasize how important it was for teachers to set up the strategies well, so students don’t go in with misconceptions or confusion about how the strategy will help them. I especially liked the Chalk Talk strategy because it allows every student to contribute something meaningful even if they are too shy to talk. How might you respond to students (or even faculty) that see these strategies as childish and a distraction from the science content?

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