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Encouraging Your Students to Engage in Deeper Thinking

The following is an excerpt from my new book, 'Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. In the unabridged chapter, I explore specific cross-curricular lessons and activities that teachers can use to help encourage metacognition, think aloud, and storytelling as a means to teach commentary and deeper thinking. This excerpt argues why storytelling is a valuable tool in any classroom, and also gives a word of caution for teachers who use this important strategy.

Did you ever see Kevin Costner's film, Dances with Wolves? Remember that wolf that tentatively skirted around the outside of the soldier's camp, searching for attention? Remember how many times we had to sit through seeing Costner try to coax that wolf towards him to eat from his hand? Well, getting a tween to share their thoughts, to make connections to their content, is kind of like that. We have to coax them. Not with beef jerky, but with your own thoughts and commentary. Then you'll have them eating from your hand, and when they begin to listen to the hand that feeds them, they will begin to learn how to think for themselves.

Our thoughts and commentary must occasionally come from our own archive of anecdotes. Children aren't born knowing how to make decisions. You have to model it for them, and middle schoolers are more likely respond to lessons hidden in the anecdotes of your outside life than those stated on some poster hanging in your room or stated in some entry from the textbook.

Now, I don't mean you need to share so much that you invite your 250 students over for Thanksgiving dinner, but I do mean you should tell them about how to cook a turkey. Better yet, share how you once burned the bird and ended up making a Stouffer's Lasagna. Thus, you've modeled both flexibility and the ability to problem solve while laughing at yourself.

What you share models your own thought process, and from there you can train students to exploit their own stories, thoughts, and musings to help create a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Creating a classroom culture of storytelling leads to deeper connections, deeper commentary, and ultimately higher achievement. It is a version of Think Aloud, a strategy many elementary teachers use faithfully, yet an all-important process underutilized by many of us in the secondary levels.

However, a word of caution: I'm only talking about selected stories of your past. Use the power of storytelling wisely and it will also model to your students a higher standard of commentary. Be smart. Be the adult in the room.

Make sure you follow some guidelines when you are sharing stories of your past or present:

1. Don't share anything you wouldn't tell a person to their face. When I teach persuasive debate and counterargument, I always choose to share the fact that my husband and I fight over the TiVo remote. The point is, I don't mind if my husband knows I'm sharing this particular ongoing bicker.

2. Be smart. They don't need to know everything you did in college. Surely you can find another example from somewhere in your life to model the lesson of not doing what the masses tell you besides that asinine moment where you learned the hard way not to jump off a roof into a pool.

3. Make sure that your anecdote connects to the material. Non-sequitors are no fun, and students will know if you just like to hear yourself talk.

4. Make sure your story has a message. We don't have instructional time to waste. Let your students know that even their lives have themes; they just need to pay attention to their own tales.

By sharing your appropriate anecdotes and your real-time Think Aloud, you can then ask students to freeze their tickertape, that continuous dialogue that quietly comments on everything around them, and analyze it, capture it, articulate it, and even reflect back as to how that thought came to be in their head.

And it all starts by being willing to be the first storyteller in the room.

Just remember, teaching deeper thinking is something you can't merely do once and expect the results of deeper awareness of thought. After all, just as you can't go to the gym one time, work out your glut once, and expect a firm derrière, you can't just do one activity that activates students' stories and Think Aloud and expect a deeper thinker. If your modeling and sharing isn't constant and honest, then their willingness to "go there" for you won't reveal itself.

Tap into and share your stories, your background knowledge, and your thinking process, and you will be modeling how students can tap into their own brain as well.

Heather's book is available at the Web site Eye on Eye Education Publishing and on Amazon.

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

It's hard to talk about your personal experiences without inadvertently injecting some political or social commentary/lesson. I agree - the life experience of a middle school student can be vicariously enhanced with this method, but it's very easy to cross the line. Drawing from literature, historical and current events can work too. I recall in school often wondering "where is he going with this?" when a teacher used a personal story, and often the answer was -- nowhere, really...

Thiago Fernandes's picture

You cannot teach deeper thinking. Only encourage it. It has been said that the most important things in life cannot be taught. I believe that's absolutely true. Besides that, great article, this truly is a lesson every teacher needs to get a grip on.

Jennifer's picture

I use this strategy in my Character Education class. I have one class and we discuss a wide range of characteristics. I use personal examples, of which I am careful not to be too personal, which then opens the doors for the students to begin sharing their experiences with this situation as well. It makes them feel comfortable in my classroom knowing that I may have experienced similar feelings/issues as they are currently going through. It then opens the door for them to reflect on their situations and share with the class.

Karen Pompilio's picture
Karen Pompilio
eighth grade science, Irvington, NJ

I am currently taking a course for which I am researching methods of managing the behavior of middle school students. In my research, I found that this type of personal connection also has a positive impact on behavior. While students are exploring their own thoughts through stories and anecdotes, they are also building a connection with the teacher.

Jessica Smith's picture
Jessica Smith
5th grade social studies teacher

I was attracted to this article because I want my students to understand that we all make mistakes. Also, I want to understand the appropriate ways to interact and help my students learn through my experiences. I have used this strategy when explaining my trips to Washington D.C. or Gettysburg when they pertain to my curriculum. I also have used this strategy to explain tips or examples of how I learned the 50 states. Deeper thinking or "thinking outside of the box" is something I love to see in my students. Any way that I can help my students learn or encourage them to think in such a way is beneficial in my instruction. The guidelines were helpful and important when using examples to expand deeper thinking.

Ryan's picture
8th Grade US History

I strongly agree with your message of using stories to help kids connect to the content and to you as a teacher. I think back to my favorite history teachers and the one thing they all had in common is that they made history come alive with their ability to tell stories about the content that also connected to everyday problems we faced as students.
In my own teaching I have found that the more "entertaining" and real I can make the content the more likely it is that students will enjoy the class and buy into what we are doing. The biggest drawback I have found in relation to this method is that sometimes the students can get me off track and on some sort of tangent and I end up not finishing everything I originally planned on covering... I try not to let it bother me too much though because even if I didn't accomplish every detail I intended I can recognize the students gaining valuable knowledge and being interactive in the class.

Laura S's picture
Laura S
Small school teacher, teaches grades K-8

I have often tired to engage my students in higher thinking, I have tired many different ways but none of them seem to work for me. I am glad there are some steps that I can follow to help them think on a higher level. I find students like to take the easy way out. This is going to be a great opportunity for me to try with all my lovely students.

Tanya's picture
8th Pre-Algebra Teacher from Memphis, TN

I can relate to how using personal experiences can lead to more in-depth thinking. I find that teaching in an urban environment, this is a tool needed to open lines of communication and promote relationships with my students. I have found that when my students "feel" that you, as a teacher, are "touchable" or "relateable," then tend to open up more and want to perform more. I like the idea.

Luke's picture
9th grade math teacher from ND

I also like the ideas given here. It is sometimes hard to get the higher thinking from students in mathematics. It is a subject that many students struggle with and dislike because they find it hard. I believe that by engaging students with personal experiences in math, it can really keep the students motivated and understand how math is applicable to their everyday lives. By doing this, I feel that students can achieve that deeper thinking.

Shaq's picture

Work-classwork,homework,quizzes, and tests should be structured around a six step process:
1.Remember(then build upon the previous steps)

Furthermore, students should be encouraged to learn about multiple intelligences and figure out which way they naturally learn best and incorporate it into the learning process.

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