Project Zero, Visible Thinking, and Developing Through Lines

One of the many things that drew me to PDS is the school’s commitment to ongoing professional development for teachers in both public and independent schools. A little over a year ago, with the help of a generous donation, the school founded the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence. But even before it started the Martin Institute,  PDS had committed to sending every one of its teachers to Harvard to attend Project Zero (PZ). When PDS offered me the sixth-grade reading position and asked me to attend PZ this past summer, I seized the opportunity. The fact that my good friend Clif Mims, the Martin Institute’s executive director, was leading the cohort was a fortunate bonus, and during the last week of July, Clif and I, along with four other PDS teachers and five public school teachers, traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to rethink our teaching.

I knew little about the PZ program before boarding the plane for Cambridge. I’d been prepped by friends at PDS and by what I’d read online, but I didn’t really understand the program goals until I arrived on site. The design of the program includes time in large group instruction (keynotes), classroom instruction (mini-courses), and small group interaction (study groups). I’ll confess that before attending I totally dreaded having to attend the study group time (I needed an attitude adjustment), but it became my favorite part of the week. The typical morning started with a keynote, followed by a break, then a class. Lunches were on our own. We spent the entire afternoon in study groups. We registered ahead of time for our mini-courses, and PZ assigned us to study groups according to our professional teaching roles (age-level & subject content). Each keynote presented an idea about teaching and thinking; the mini-courses modeled its use, and the study groups allowed time for conversation, discussion, and reflection. The entire week was awesome.

Project Zero centers around these essential questions (“through lines”):

  • What are the components of an effective education for the world that students live in now and will live in 10, 20 or 50 years from now?
  • What is understanding and how does it develop?
  • What are the roles of reflection and assessment in student and teacher learning?
  • How can participants continue to share and pursue their understanding of Project Zero’s ideas with others after the institute? (via PZC)

I took pages and pages of notes and grabbed every handout and business card I could find. I also bought a ton of books as resources. To be honest, the learning was overwhelming. I had already begun the process of reinventing myself, but PZ kicked everything into overdrive, and I had to return home and start in-service almost immediately. Yikes! It’s now the middle of October, and I’m still sorting through all I took from the experience.

The PZ week culminates in a brief project presentation made in study groups. I had a tough time narrowing my project because I’d been blown away by so many new ideas, but two things surfaced that I want to share. First, I committed to learning more about the visible thinking routines and incorporating them into my classroom instruction. I have set this as my professional development goal for this school year. I have created a study group with some of my PDS colleagues to read and discuss Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church (CV .pdf), and Karin Morrison. I started using the routines on the first day of school, and appreciate the learning and discussions that have resulted with each use. (I plan to blog about a few of the experiences I’ve had.) Second, I am trying to design my class experiences using the Teaching for Understanding (TfU) framework from PZ. I’m still working my way through TfU, but thanks to my study group’s guidance I was able to identify the through lines I am using to design my sixth-grade reading class. The through lines, or big questions, are the bones around which I am building the class learning experiences. I am also trying to consider my students’ interests as well. Here are the through lines as they currently stand:

  • How can we become more thoughtful readers and writers?
  • How do reading and writing help us connect with others and better understand the human experience?
  • How do reading and writing shape our voice and our actions?
  • How do reading and writing help us better understand and engage in our grade-level theme of conflict?

I’d love some feedback on these ideas. This is all new to me. Not only am I in a new position, new to PDS, and new to single-sex education, but also I’m new to sixth grade, new to thinking routines, new to “teaching for understanding,” and new to teaching reading outside the traditional English curriculum. It’s a lot of new. It’s a year of trial and error–of experimentation–of learning, and I love that I’m at a school that encourages me to do so. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions about what I’m doing, I’d love to hear from you.