About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, April 3, 2009

Portraits of Thinking: Science In a First-Grade Classroom

Here is a fourth story about cognition in action, a spontaneous science lesson in a first-grade classroom in inner-city Baltimore. For those of you who missed the previous entries where I discuss the purpose of these portraits of thinking, I’ll repeat two introductory paragraphs now. If you did read the earlier entries, you can skip right to the story of Stephanie Terry and her students, which is drawn from Possible Lives.

As I’ve been arguing during the year of this blog’s existence—and for some time before—we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school. We miss so much.

I hope that the portraits I offer over the next few months illustrate the majesty and surprise of intelligence, its varied manifestations, its subtlety and nuance. The play of mind around us. I hope that collectively the portraits help us think in a richer way about teaching, learning, achievement, and the purpose of education—a richer way than that found in our current national policy and political discourse about school.


As we enter the classroom, teacher Stephanie Terry is reading A House for Hermit Crab to her students. Hermit crabs inhabit empty mollusk shells, and, as they grow, they leave old shells to find bigger ones; in this story a cheery hermit crab searches for a more spacious home. The class has a glass case with five hermit crabs—supplied by Stephanie—and over the year, her students have seen this behavior. The case holds thirteen shells of various sizes, and more than once students noticed that a shell had been abandoned and a new one suddenly animated. As Stephanie reads the book, she pauses and raises broader questions about where the creatures live, and this leads to an eager query from Kenneth about where in nature you’d find hermit crabs. “Well,” says Stephanie, “let’s see if we can figure that out.”

She gets up and brings the case with the hermit crabs to the center of the room, takes them out, and places them on the rug. One scuttles away from the group, another moves in a brief half-circle, three stay put. While this is going on, Stephanie takes two plastic tubs from the cupboard above the sink and fills one with cold water from the tap. “Watch the hermit crabs closely,” she says, “while I go to the kitchen. Be ready to tell me what you see.” She runs down the hall to get warm water from the women who prepare the children’s lunches. Then she places both tubs side by side and asks five students, one by one, to put each of the crabs in the cold water. “What happens?” she asks. “They don’t move,” says Kenneth. “They stay inside,” adds Miko.

Stephanie gives the crabs a bit longer, then asks five other students to transfer the crabs to the second tub. They do, and within seconds the crabs start to stir. Before long, the crabs are really moving, antennae dipping, legs scratching every which way at the plastic, two of the crabs even crawling over each other. “Okay,” says Stephanie. “What happens in the warm water?” An excited chorus: “They’re moving.” “They’re walking all over.” “They like it.” “They’re happy like the crab in the book.” “Well,” says Stephanie, “What does this suggest about where they like to live?”

That night the students write about the experiment. Many are just learning to write, but Stephanie tells them to write their observations as best as they can, and she will help them develop what they write.

The next day they take turns standing before the class and reading their reports. Miko goes first: “I saw the hermit crab walking when it was in the warm water, but when it was in the cold water it was not walking. It likes to live in warm water.”

Then Romarise takes the floor, holding his paper way out in his right hand, his left hand in the pocket of his overalls: “(1) I observed two legs in the back of the shell. (2) I observed that some of the crabs changes its shell. (3) When the hermit crabs went into the cold water, they walked slow. (4) When the hermit crabs went into the warm water, they walked faster.” One by one, the rest of the students read their observations, halting at times as they try to figure out what they wrote, sometimes losing track and repeating themselves, but, in soft voice or loud, with a quiet sense of assurance or an unsteady eagerness, reporting on the behavior of the hermit crabs that live against the east wall of their classroom.


  1. Spontaneity: the most important aspect of education.

    She sounds like a great teacher, simply due to her ability to make a lesson out of a comment (something that is NOT simple!). It's what good teachers are able to do. It is what gets lost amid all the worry of testing, and scores, and sticking to the curricular materials, etc.....

  2. I believe this teacher is showing an amazing ability to read her students and to make learning and education fun and exciting. As I go through my various teaching classes we are always encouraged to make school interesting however we also have so many standards to meet during the day making spontaneity almost impossible. Since I am hoping to teach high school English I am always trying to come up with creative activities that will inspire my future students to write creatively. Being a first grade teacher is difficult enough-then to add in this spontaneous activity just goes to show what an amazing teacher she is, and that being creative in the classroom is possible.

    So often we get caught up in the daunting standards and applications we have to teach that we forget that students also need to learn that education is fun! This teacher was aware of her students, played off of their curiosity to teach them an impromptu science lesson and inspired them to apply the lesson as a short writing practice. This was a GREAT lesson to share!

  3. To me, what stands out in this portrait is that Stephanie, a teacher whose goals are aligned with the betterment of her students, engages her students thoughtfully. Ms. Terry recognizes that learning does not exist outside of student interest; as teachers, we should feel obligated to enrich our students’ educative experience through meaningful activities, lessons, collaborative group work, and so forth.

    What’s more, I am reminded of educational researchers and teachers who have long supported the idea of letting the students decide what and when to explore—allow them to be the knowledge seekers, the inquisitors of intellect, the adventurers of cognition. If we let them explore, we can then assume the role of mentor and guide. It is clear that Ms. Terry organized an activity, a lesson plan with an objective and methods to achieve said objective, but she also let her student explorers decide which stones to step on during their path to discovery.

    Children are naturally curious. But, when we impose upon our students unnatural expectations, standards of a limiting nature, we discourage their innate desire to learn. Admittedly, taking a stance in opposition to the politics of education is difficult, and at many times, threatening; however, it is our responsibility to oppose unnatural, unsupportive, and uninspiring methods of instruction. It is our duty to provide the kind of atmosphere in which students feel empowered to explore, inquire, and develop their varied intellectual abilities.

  4. What makes this entry so important to me is the fact that Ms. Terry is using actual life to teach. She uses living, breathing things from the world to show her students how they live. Instead of holding up a picture out of a book or doing a google search in class, this teacher took the time to fully engage her students by making the subject a real thing. I think this is extremely important in the classroom. Now obviously, a teacher cannot make everything "real" within the classroom; they cannot bring in a saber tooth tiger when the children are learning about it. But I think too often teachers keep themselves and their students locked within the confines of the room's four walls and the pages of a provided text book. Being a true believer and lover of fresh air and sunlight, I think it is important to bring as much of the outside world into the classroom as possible. Ms. Terry shows one example of how to accomplish this goal. She keys in to children's innate sense of wonder about the world around them.

    In thinking about classrooms and the outside world, I like to image back to when schoolhouses were one room red buildings with only a few buildings. I am sure that the teachers and students had many days of outings to explore nearby plants, bugs, clouds, etc. Simply observing and talking about what you see in life remains the basic form of learning and I think we have lost touch with that form of education. Children are ingrained with a need and desire to know and learn through exploration, and we are simply the nudge that gets their little brains started.

    I think teachers need to be brave enough to put down the pre-planned textbook and take a chance on using "life" outside the classroom to engage their students. Lets just see what happens.

  5. The teacher, Stephanie Terry, shows in this example, how to inspire her students and bring the written word literally to life! This group of kids will always remember the moments they spent in observing the hermit crabs in different environments. It adds a layer of richeness to the classroom that just reading (as much as I love the written word) wouldn't have done.

    I want to be a teacher, and this story reminds me of the importance of following up on kid's interests whenever possible! It is more time consuming and requires more creativity, but there is more reward for the student (and teacher)!

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog because it’s so often that experiments like this get lost in the rush to meet scores on high stakes tests that are being pushed on students way too early to be age appropriate. Science often takes a backseat, even as early as Kindergarten, and when science is implemented in the classroom it is not active and the students tend to watch a movie, fill in a worksheet, and move on to another topic or assignment. When I was a student teacher I was asked to basically have the students read some material out loud about the topic I was teaching, highlight important information (that I chose, not that they found pertinent), and then take a quiz that just regurgitated what they read and what I had them highlight. I hated it. I wanted to do experiments with them, give them hands on activities to explore and understand the scientific method, and help them learn to enjoy science each day through exciting and challenging tasks that made them think on their toes and create a deeper sense of learning. I had twenty minutes total, once a week, to do this in, and was asked just to set all of those ideas aside to create the boring lesson plans that I described above. I swore never to do these things in my own classroom.

    While reading about Stephanie Terry and her first graders I smiled. She did so many things that most teachers would love to do but can’t due to time constraints, political policies and testing that are enforced in the classroom, etc. She connects observations made over the year with the classroom hermit crabs to a fun science lesson plan that involves reading, writing, and experimentation. She leads an experiment based on student inquiry, which is how science experiments tend to begin. Instead of deciding what they would do and exactly how ahead of time, she helped the students figure out the answer to a question that they wanted to know: where in nature you would find hermit crabs. The whole time she is conducting this experiment, she asks the students questions that foster critical thinking skills, such as “what does this suggest about where they live?” She asks them to state their observations, and encourages them in their observations. She makes them comfortable enough to write down what they observed even though they don’t have the best writing skills and to share what they wrote, which can be very scary, but in Stephanie Terry’s class the environment welcomes the students to these new challenges.

    Again, I am so glad that you posted this blog entry because it shows teachers, experienced and new alike, that the classroom can be a positive, exciting place to learn and grow both for teachers and students alike. True thinking and learning can occur without worrying about testing, correct grammar, etc. Reading and writing can be incorporated into all subject areas in a way that encourages, not discourages these things. Stephanie Terry gave her students the opportunity to experiment, to be hands on (most teachers would never let the students move the crabs themselves!), to be creative, and to be expressive. Her classroom is welcoming, joyful, and energetic. Through this one lesson she shows that she is dedicated to helping her children grow and learn, to understand the world around them, and to ask questions, conduct experiments, and gather understanding from those events. She obviously doesn’t believe in teaching to tests, using only worksheets in the classroom, and boring, completely structured lessons, yet I feel confident in the fact that she is a great teacher and gets results from her students .This is apparent from their reflections from the experiment-they gathered wonderful thoughts from what they observed and were able to conclude that hermit crabs love to live in warm water, not cold water. Students so often are underestimated and overlooked but this is something that Stephanie Terry obviously doesn’t do. Thanks again for posting this blog. It definitely reminded me of the teacher that I want to be, and that it can be enjoyable and not always stressful to educate young minds!

  7. Discovery learning is a joy to see in action. In my eighth year of teaching, I struggle to find the time and resources to do as many experiments as I would like although I know the benefits of them. As others have posted, time constraints and mandated standards sometimes squelch even the best of intentions. Still, I continue to believe that all students deserve the right to explore and discover new understandings. All teachers deserve the privilege of leading their students into a world of understanding and investigation.
    Ms. Terry is an excellent example of a real teacher. She chooses to offer her students experiences and the joy of learning. She does not allow mandates to control the
    education of her students. Not only should Ms. Terry be commended, but also she should be noted as an example for other teachers. I do not suggest that all teachers have class pets. Some teachers, much like me, have unsuccessfully ended the life of too many fish already. However, teachers can allow life discovery experiences in many ways.
    My students remember experiments, hands-on activities and real-life experiences much longer than textbook activities and other typical lessons. When I see the children from my first kindergarten class, they always mention special events. They remember the time that we followed the missing gingerbread men around the school by following the clues in hidden notes. They recall treasure and scavenger hunts. They mention the nature walks through the woods and the items that we collected. They talk about the magnet experiments, safety obstacle course and sound experiments that we conducted. My students never mention a movie we watched or a worksheet that we completed. When they are able to find out new things through observations and interactions, they become more assured and well-rounded children. Although topics like magnetic forces, life cycles and light and sound standards lend themselves toward investigative activities, experiments do not have to be limited to science topics.
    Recently, my class and I have been reading the A to Z Mystery series of chapter books. The children in the stories find clues that help them to solve mysteries and fight crime. My students and I do our own investigative activities to recreate the investigations of the three main characters. Following the reading of The School Skeleton, we all removed our shoes, scanned them into the computer and made our own footprint copies as an example of the footprint found at the scene of the crime. We used the same questioning techniques used within the story and then discovered whose footprint matched the crime in our classroom. We also traced our shoes, measured them and created our own “dirt” copies of the footprints.
    Experimentation can also be used to enhance social studies. While studying Benjamin Franklin, we recreated several of his experiments like musical glasses (armonica) and the lemon battery (electricity experiments). During our study of Thomas Jefferson, the children were having difficulty understanding the Declaration of Independence and taxation without representation. In order to help them understand why the colonists wished to revolt, we performed a social experiment that mimicked social inequalities. By the end of the experiment, the students had a better understanding of the meanings of revolt, independence and unequal representation and taxation. I would not even attempt to teach these concepts to first graders without allowing them the opportunity to experience a small scale personalized event.
    Students need chances to think critically, build personal understandings and develop their own knowledge seeking abilities. Experiments and real life experiences are extremely useful in attaining higher order thinking skills and memorable interactions with information and problem solving. Each time I hear of another teacher, teaching against the odds, it renews my vigor in creating an environment of discovery. Thank you Ms. Terry, for your reminder!

  8. When I read this post, I thought, “That is a class I would love for my child to be learning in.” I can just imagine the eagerness that the students ran home sharing with their parents. I can only imagine the number of those students who took it a step further and ran to the computer and asked how to spell hermit crab. You can also bet that more than one student entered his front door with the question, “Mom, can I get a hermit crab? I know what they like and I will take care of it.” The students’ eagerness and excitement about the book that they read and what they had learned about the hermit crab was no accident. Ms. Terry certainly knew that the students would love to see the crab in action and planned it that way.
    Ms. Terry offers a great deal to us teachers that are caught in the snare of high-stakes testing. I have heard so many times that teachers simply do not have the time to incorporate activities such as these because of the mandates handed down by the state or NCLB. But I challenge all of us teachers to look at Ms. Terry’s classroom and ask ourselves if the students learned that animals have certain and distinct living environments in which they belong and where they will thrive. Teachers, all of us at some time or another, make the mistake in thinking that our mandates limit what we can do in the classroom. I am a realist and I do acknowledge the struggles. However, if we are committed to challenging our students, bringing real-life, authentic, activities that stretch their thinking, they will perform on those tests.
    I am reminded of my home economics teacher in high-school. Yes, this was way before NCLB and certainly outside of the umbrella of standards, being that it was home-ec. None the less, Ms. Matthews taught us like her job depended on it. She allowed us each day to discover the conversion charts for ourselves. She simply did not tell us there were 4 quarts in a gallon. We were asked to show her the number of quarts in a gallon, instead. Her class was always fun and exciting, but challenging as well. On her tests, I was able to draw from my experiences to answer the questions, not just my notes. Because I had experiences to back up the facts that she gave us, I truly learned that year.
    In my classroom, I am continually asking myself, “How can I show this to my students?” It is important, vital for my students to experience as much as they can, in order for true learning to occur. When this happens, there will be little room for doubt as to how they will perform on that darned test. When the test asks about the necessary elements for photosynthesis, they can reflect on the seeds that were planted outside of the window. The ones that thrived had plenty of sunshine, food and water. Hmmmm….
    Students learn through experiences. When they relate, whether to literature or experiences in nature or history, the information that they are processing becomes more important to them. We, as teachers, have the responsibility to ensuring that we make as many connections as possible. Certainly, we cannot have these same types of connections each day in every subject, but when possible, we should rise to the occasion. We must resist the temptation to fall into complacency and teach in the multiple choice fashion that we test. We must teach the students, and stimulate them in such a way that the test is just another byproduct of what the students have learned.

  9. Ms Terry’s way of engaging her students is hands on. I am not sure that it specified which grade she was teaching, but by the book she read I am assuming that they were very young students. First, Ms. Terry introduces her topic by reading the children a story, then to make it relevant she takes them to the glass aquarium that is inside their learning environment to show them firsthand how the hermit crabs live in order to answer one of her students questions. What a wonderful way to teach.
    I am reminded of all that I am learning in preparation to becoming a teacher, of Constance Weaver and Robert Coles’ Teaching Stories. It is these very lessons that students remember because teachers like Ms. Terry made it relevant to them.
    Without even being there I can see the eagerness to learn and those curious eyes watching as they transferred the hermit crabs from tub to tub. My hope after reading this is that I find relevance like Ms. Terry did to all that I teach my students.

  10. Melissa HarrisonMay 3, 2009 at 4:34 PM

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story because it is so refreshing to know that teachers still take the time to connect with their students and make learning entertaining. It was not until recently that I came to the realization that Science and Social Studies were somewhat “placed on the back burner” to other subjects, and teachers had to alternate the two subjects because there was not enough time in the school day to teach both. This came as a shock to me because Science seems to be the subject that is most commonly viewed by students as being “hard” or “boring” because teachers have students take turn reading the text, and then have them answer comprehension questions. I think this is ridiculous because Science is the one subject that students are able to take responsibility for their learning. They are able to do this through experiments, exploration, and inquiry. Children are naturally curious and curiosity is interrelated to children’s motivation to learn, so when students are deprived of these opportunities given by certain subjects they of course become disinterested and their intrinsic motivation undoubtedly suffers.

    The most important aspect of this entry is that Ms. Terry is making real life connections to this lesson while incorporating reading, writing, exploration, and experimenting! She is guiding students to ask realistic questions, and then giving them the opportunity to answer their own questions. Due to standards, deadlines, and standardize testing teachers often forget that the most important aspect of teaching is making sure that students are actually learning the information they are given, and are able to retain and regurgitate the information automatically. For the majority of people, most of the information we receive from the environment goes in one ear and out the other. For information to be processed in the long term memory, people typically store new information by relating it to things they already know and have experienced. This is crucial for students (especially young students) because this is providing a foundation for their knowledge. So much pressure is put on teachers that they begin to teach the tests, rather than create meaningful experiences for their students. It is so much easier for teachers to have students sit in their seats while the teacher reads the book out loud, and then give them mundane assignments that relate to the book. Most of these assignments are the typically comprehension questions that students become bored with. What makes an impact on students learning is when they are able to move around the room and discover answers for themselves, instead of having a teacher tell the answer or have them look it up in a textbook. I understand that it is impractical for teachers to provide students with these real life connections all the time, but when it only involves teachers putting in a little extra effort to create these experiences for students teachers should jump at the chance. This especially applies for students that are part of inner city schools where there may be insufficient funds for science experiments. Some of these students have not been exposed to the outside world and have not been given the chance to explore and discover meanings on their own.

    I am a new teacher entering the working world and I have found in the little experience I have had that students are much more responsive when they are given activities that are not specifically outlined with directions. They are more engaged when they feel they are being trusted to discover information on their own and then report their findings. As a new teacher I feel like I have watched teachers get set in their ways that they forget how to make learning enjoyable. I find it stimulating to read that teachers are able to take a step back from the stress of standardized tests and standards to make learning fun for students and genuinely enjoy their job!

  11. I have really enjoyed the various stories and examples that you have shared on your blog of teachers going the extra mile. We have all been in a class in which the teacher teaches straight from the teacher’s manual and boy does than get boring. In my opinion, the manuals are there as a guide to use in your classroom, a sort of jumping off point. As teachers we need to take that guide and develop it to fit the particular students in our classroom that year. Not all teaching styles and practices are effective for all students; we need to mix things up in order to make sure we are reaching all of our students. I was once told that throughout our careers as teachers we can either teach for thirty years or we can teach the same year thirty times – there is a big difference.
    It is important at all levels of teaching to keep the students engaged and to give them hands on experiences. In the story of the teacher with the hermit crabs – she was carrying out a lesson that involved reading a story about the life of a hermit crab when a student asked a question about where they live. Rather than simply supplying the student with the answer, she developed an impromptu science experiment. The students’ were required to discover the answer to their own question, the result was the same, but the method of getting there made the lesson more meaningful and the students are more likely to remember the information than if they were spoon fed the answer.
    In the era of high stakes testing, we are often faced with the time crunch of being able to get everything taught (or crammed in) before the tests roll around. Too often this pressure takes away from opportunities to let the students be curious kids and explore the world around them. Too often experiences arise such as with this 1st grade classroom and we are forced to answer the question and move on because it is not on the tests. Too often things such as science are forgotten all together, at the grade level, since it is not on the test. It is a shame that these students are being robbed from the opportunity to explore, wonder and discover their world around them. Too often when science is included in the curriculum it is just the bare minimum and is often filling out a bunch of worksheets, watching of video or occasionally watching the teacher do an experiment while the class watches.
    We need to take the time to let our students participate in hands on activities in our classrooms. Ms. Terry could very easily have taught the sections about hermit crabs straight from the book and the students would have been given the necessary information that was intended for first grade, but she went above and beyond. She brought in class pets and created a habitat for them, allowing the class to see firsthand how the hermit crab moves from shell to shell. Again, both methods they were presented that idea or piece of information, but I can guarantee that the method she chose to use will provide better results of the students actually remembering it.
    I applaud teachers such as Ms. Terry who go above and beyond to make learning meaningful for their students. The more hands on activities that we can do with them, the more they can relate what they are learning in class to real life, the more they are going to learn. The more opportunities that teachers take “to stop and smell the roses” with their students, rather than racing to the finish, the better educated and well rounded students we will produce.

  12. Thank you for the post!

    What a wonderful story! Stephanie Terry sounds like an amazing teachers who provides her students with authentic learning opportunities. I have been fortunate enough to have had many teachers who worked diligently to make education come alive for me. As a senior in college, it is so rewarding to look back upon the myriad learning moments in which I participated. The awe and utter joy brought out by learning something new, which Stephanie’s first graders struggled to express in their reflection reports, is something that remains exciting no matter how old you are. This is part of the reason that I want to teach. Not only do I want to continue having moments like these from learning new aspects of literature, but also I hope to create these types of opportunities for my students. These mini-epiphanies are what keep the world exciting and fresh; they are also what make education addicting and rewarding. Although I plan to teach secondary school, I hope to provide plenty of “hermit crab moments” for my students like Stephanie.


  13. I agree with many others when I say that Stephanie Terry sounds like an amazing teacher! I love how she is able to create an impromptu lesson from the question of one student in her class. As an aspiring teacher, I can only hope to have such lessons with my students. With this lesson, Stephanie is able to get each student excited and interested. She teaches them how to hypothesize, test, observe, and reason. Through this simple lesson, she is teaching them the scientific method. It is a method that some may think is beyond first-graders but with her help, the students demonstrate how truly ready they are as they read their observations to the class. Stephanie teaches us not to underestimate our students. They can do amazing things if we challenge them and believe in them.

  14. Stephanie Terry is a terrific example of the great things that teachers do on a daily basis in their classes but might not get acknowledged for it. Stephanie took an opportunity to go beyond just reading to her students and having them ask questions, she provide a real-life visual image that helped her students become more engaged in the book and assignment. It is a wonderful thing to hear a story like this because it gives me high hopes as a future educator that there are many opportunities to teach while still having fun activities in the classroom. As a student in that class, I imagine that this will be an unforgettable lesson for the students. The students in this class are very lucky to have a teacher like Stephanie because it is evident that she believes in different forms of learning and by having the all her students active and participating it will make their learning all the more enjoyable.

  15. What Stephanie Terry did with her students shows what all teachers should be striving for and that is having students become interested in the topic. Once the students are interested in the topic they are willing to learn and become open to new ideas. This is an approach that some teachers I have encountered lost. Maybe it is not because they have lost the passion to teach, but maybe its because many teachers are worried about things such as tft said "testing, and scores, and sticking to curricular materials."

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