three big questions

PD Session for Teachers: Helping Students Generate Questions for Inquiry and Deeper Thinking

Our school district returned on January 2 to begin a new semester, and our first day back was one with a focus on professional development.  At my school, four sessions were offered for our faculty that touched on each area of our school improvement plan.  My principal asked me to lead a session on helping students formulate and dwell in questions to address our goal of nurturing an academically challenging environment.  It was a fun day getting to lead and learn with my fellow 6th, 7th, 8th, and Connections teachers in my building.    Here is an overview of the 45 minute session I presented four times (one for each grade level/area):

  1.  Learning Activity #1: Question Flood with a “Write-Around” Activity (with chart/tablet paper and markers) Using HOTS questions with a variety of “texts” across multiple subject areas; teachers worked with their table groups to read their text and collaboratively generate HOTS questions using the HOTS question stems.  We also explored how to incorporate HOTS with other mediums, including sticky notes and chart paper or even your dry erase board in your room.
  2. Activity 2: Three Big Questions (Probst and Beers) with a variety of texts across subject areas; will also share how we used these in our “birds of feather” interest reading clubs.  Teachers had an opportunity to practice this with the text set at their table.
  3. Strategy 3: Developing Deeper Research Questions/Questions for More Inquiry with Question Lenses :  I shared how you can use Ann Marlow Riedling’s questions to help students individually or collaboratively use questions lenses to “explode” and explore a topic or text.
    Real world examples from my own practice include:A.  Example 1:  Read more here and here.
    B.  Example 2:  Read more here ; here is a completed student example from Grade 7.

The resource page I shared with teachers is available in this Google Document; the slideshow is embedded in the Google Document as well.  I have been thrilled and humbled by the positive feedback and number of teachers from all subject areas who have already implemented these strategies in less than a week!

Here are some scenes from the workshop:

Scaffolding Student Prep Work for Birds of Feather Reading Club Meetings

In my last post, I outlined how I organized a topic tasting, how birds of feather interest groups were formed, and the planning that student groups did collaboratively to divide and assign readings within their topic area from the text set.  In today’s post, I’ll share the prep work we did over four days to get ready for our reading club meetings we held today.

Prep Work by The Teacher

I began by crafting a reflection/noticing handout for each article.  The first two reflection/noticings handouts for Articles 1 and 2 were similar though there were some differences in the final reflection pieces.  You can view the handouts in this folder in Google Drive.  It took me awhile to get my groove, but I wound up organizing the prep packets with these materials:  the three article prep sheets, the roster of reading assignments I copied from the groups (green sheet 1), and a copy of the original planning work by each group.   You can also watch this short video explaining how I organized their work (my ultimate goal was to have a neat and consistent order to the packet  because it will eventually go in the students’ literacy portfolios (note:  I thought I had the phone in landscape view when I filmed, so I apologize for the vertical format).

Handing the Keys to the Students:  Steps to Success

We began by reviewing our reading assignments (in the packet) and our timeline:

This timeline was ambitious, but with only 10 “pure” instructional days from the time we returned from Thanksgiving break to our next holiday break, I had to push students a little to make these deadlines.  Thankfully, most students met the work plan for each day; some students came to the “War Time” academic makeup time last Thursday to catch up.  I collected student work–finished or not–each day so that students would not lose their work.  In addition, collecting their work made it easier to have their materials laid out at the beginning of class the following day and maximize class time.


I also incorporated some warm-ups into the activities for Days 2 and 3, including a think and write as well as a sharing of HOTS (higher order thinking skills) questions to create a gallery inquiry.

Yesterday students had the first half of the period to finish any incomplete work.  We then used the last half of the class to:

  • Highlight three questions/statements from each prep sheet (total of nine highlights) that we wanted to bring up for conversation today.
  • 1st and 4th periods used tiny sticky notes to mark a passage in each article that we might want to bring up for discussion.
  • 5th and 6th periods used tiny sticky notes to mark three passages in the third article only (the common read) for discussion.
  • Reviewed our reading club manners and etiquette as well as expectations for interacting and participating.  The list students brainstormed became the basis of their self-assessment they will complete tomorrow.
  • Reviewed their “emoji discussion cards” they could use if they got stuck on what to say or sentence starters for responding to peers.  As I will share in my next post, these worked like a charm!
  • We also reviewed the discussion structure to expect for the meeting.



At the end of the period, I collected all their work so that I could easily distribute it today for our reading club meetings.  In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about how I structured the reading club discussions and tips for helping students new to book or article discussions be confident and successful as well as our self-assessments we’ll complete and final products we’ll create.

Learning to Fly with Notice and Note Nonfiction Strategies

In my last post, I shared how I introduced Probst and Beers’ Three Big Questions and Nonfiction Signposts strategies to my 8th graders.  After reading about the way Julie Swinehart introduced the nonfiction signposts to her 11th graders, it seemed logical that 8th graders should be able to do something similar with a partner with nonfiction books after “cutting their teeth” on informational text articles.

I pulled many nonfiction books from our library for students to browse for our signpost treasure hunt and to articulate our big question statements.   All instructions and examples were copied onto neon yellow paper and tucked into each book to help students have a cheat sheet for their work.  We gave students the option of working with a partner or independently; most chose to work with a partner.

My fellow 8th Language Arts teacher Mandy Briscoe and I bravely decided to combine our classes for the activity in our media center and convened this past Friday.  After reviewing the instructions, our students set about their work with our target goal of completing three big question statements before the period was over.   Students were to write their responses on sticky notes and let us check them before adding them to the “parking lot” poster for each big question.

We realized that even though we had orally reviewed an example of how to go about the writing task for each question and provided students a written copy of the example, students were still not including any commentary to explain their textual evidence.  We quickly punted before our next group of students arrived and tried to reorganize the example response to emphasize the big question sentence starter (they had notes on this from earlier in the week and had practiced using those), textual evidence, and the commentary to explain the textual evidence.

Overall, we were pleased with the conversations for learning that happened on the first day of learning even though some partner groups struggled to finish the three big questions before the end of class.

For Day 2, our plan was for students to try to find at least three of the five possible nonfiction signposts.  However, this past Monday was a perfect storm of sorts.  First, it was a regular school day with a subsequent day off for Election Day on Tuesday, November 6.  Secondly, it was the first Monday after the time change.  Consequently, even many of our best students were sluggish and struggling to follow the template we had provided to help them articulate their signposts talk.  As they day wore on, we felt frustrated that students didn’t seem to be giving their best effort even with signpost strategies like numbers and data that should have been easy to pick out of a nonfiction text.  By the time we reached the last class period, we decided to split up, and I took my 6th period back to my room to do some strategic and targeted practice with two of the signpost strategies I felt they needed a little more work on—contrasts and contradictions and extreme and absolute language.

I was disappointed the second day didn’t go as well as the first, but given the circumstances, I think the day we chose for our second and final day of the activity was probably not optimal.  In addition, I wish now I had just stayed focus on shorter informational texts and held off on practicing with nonfiction books until January when we begin nonfiction book clubs.  Sometimes, though, when you read about someone else doing an activity with their students, the strategies and activity seem easy in your mind.  Hindsight is always 20/20, right?   For many reasons, though, our students were just not quite ready to make that leap so soon, and I feel badly that I overestimated what was realistically doable for them.  On the other hand, there was nothing to be lost by pushing their thinking and having them engage in something that turned out to be a bit of a challenge for them.  Here are some snapshots of their efforts after we brought their work from the library to our hallway and my classroom:

Have you ever been off the mark in thinking what students could do and then realizing you needed to “punt” and adjust to meet them at their point of need?  If so, how did you make the most of the situation?

Introducing Nonfiction Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies to 8th Grade Readers

Blog Post Header Introducing Signposts and Big Questions (1)

This past week we began our study of informational text and writing for Quarter 2.  I am so excited that our pacing guide pairs informational text with informational writing and then allows a second round of study in Quarter 3 to build student stamina with informational text and argumentative writing (we’ll be engaging in nonfiction book clubs! come January!).   Both units give me an opportunity to integrate a range of reading, writing, and research strategies from Smokey Daniels and Nancy Steineke, Bob Probst and Kylene Beers, Stephanie Harvey, Cris Tovani, Gretchen Bernabei, Kelly Gallagher, Lucy Calkins, and Jane Schaffer.

I began our unit this week by introducing Probst and Beers’ Three Big Questions and the Signposts Strategies for Nonfiction.  Using Reading Nonfiction Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by Bob Probst and Kylene Beers as my guide, I crafted materials and activities to introduce these concepts and to give students opportunities to practice the strategies with partners and independently with shorter texts.

After introducing the Three Big Questions and sentence starters to help students articulate their thinking, my students and I read “Meet Your Competition”, an article about the impact of automation and robots on various career fields ( shout out to GALILEO for providing us access to this wonderful Junior Scholastic article).

After our read-aloud and discussion about the article, students could work with a partner or alone to come up with three statements for each big question.    Requiring students to use the sentence starters that came from the Probst/Beers text was especially helpful in nudging students to be a little more specific and focused with their thinking about each big question:

Toward the last 20 minutes of class on Tuesday, students had opportunities to share their two most important statements and their summary statement of the main idea of the article.  Students also got to share which “big question” was most helpful in pushing their thinking about the text.

On Wednesday, we began our work with the nonfiction signpost strategies by reviewing and discussing examples of each signpost.  Students received a mini-copy of the notes below to cut and paste into their class notebooks.

Students then worked with a partner to go back into our article we had worked with Monday and Tuesday and began our “treasure” hunt for an example of each signpost; we then shared our findings with the class.  On Thursday, we did a quick review together and discussed possible answers for each chunk of informational text in the slideshow below:

Students could use their notes and copy of the warm-up examples on a quick assessment I gave them to see if they could identify more examples independently and to determine if there were any particular signposts that might need more instruction and practice.  After the assessment, students were given one of three articles on youth football and concussions (differentiated by reading level) and a graphic organizer to help them record their big questions and thinking about the signposts they found in their articles.


In my next post, I’ll share how I adapted an activity from Julie Swinehart to help our students apply their skills to nonfiction texts.  How are you introducing big questions and nonfiction signposts strategies to your students in Language Arts or content area classes?

Source of Common Reading Article:

SHERMAN, ERIK, and REBECCA ZISSOU. “Meet Your Competition.” Junior Scholastic, vol. 118, no. 11, Apr. 2016, p. 16. EBSCOhost,