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Who’s doing the thinking?

Over the summer, I’ve been doing some literacy work with an educational consulting group here in Boston — we’re taking some of their existing professional development (PD) and classroom tools and modifying them to better address the Common Core. Last week, I went with some other members of the team to a PD session for high school teachers titled “Who’s Doing the Thinking?” In light of the Common Core, this workshop was designed to help teachers accurately assess the thinking demands in their classroom, and to make informed decisions around when we should guide students in diving into complex texts, and when we should let them do it on their own.

As part of this workshop, we watched a video of a high-performing 9th grade ELA classroom. The students were seated in a modified semi-circle having a whole-class discussion around themes in the latest chapter of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — a literary nonfiction text they were reading together. As the teacher facilitated the discussion, she skillfully asked probing questions like “What makes you say that?” “Where in the text can you find evidence to support that?” “Why do you think that?”  Her questions enabled students to really ground their thinking in textual evidence — a key piece of Common Core reading.

However, I couldn’t help but notice another teacher move that happened often. After each student finished giving evidence and making a statement, the teacher almost always offered a “summary plus.” That is, she concisely restated the student’s point and added some of her own thinking to the student’s comment. I likely noticed this because I do it all the time: taking a student comment and adding more detail. Now, I think this is sometimes wholly appropriate, but after watching about ten minutes of this video and reflecting on my own practice, I wondered, Shouldn’t we be trying to get students to do these “summary pluses”? In a perfect world, wouldn’t we be nearly absent from the conversation?

The video clip I watched happened towards the beginning of a unit, and I have no doubt that the discussion was more “teacher heavy” than later discussions would be. But the video still got me thinking. In addition to simply probing students to give evidence, what can we as teachers say and do to encourage students to give those mini-summaries? One thing I’ve decided I’d like to try in my classroom this fall is to be very explicit about my “summary pluses.” During early discussions of text, I will tell my students exactly what I’m doing when I rephrase and add my own thinking, and then I’ll slowly try to release the responsibility to them.

Giving up control of the thinking in a classroom is so much harder than it looks, but as I delve into the Common Core this summer, I’m realizing more and more how necessary it is. I’m excited to really practice what I preach this fall, and I’m looking forward to hearing from other educators on how you navigate the thinking balance in your classrooms!

Elizabeth Maine About Elizabeth Maine

Elizabeth Maine is currently a K-6 language and literacy interventionist and coach in the Highline Public Schools just south of Seattle, WA. She has taught grades K-12 in various capacities over the last seven years and loves making connections between reading & writing and helping students of all ages find texts they love.



  1. Can you give us an actual example of “summary plus” from the video?
    I think I know what you mean, but I want to make sure.

  2. I have faced similar issues of giving up control while teaching undergrads & agree with you that we as teachers have to give up much of the ‘leading’ around how/where a discussion develops – especially when we want our students doing that for themselves. However I also recognize that at times (early in a semester for example) the students’ skills may not quite up to the level I’m hoping for. And yes, I realize I might need to also let go of this idea – a ‘hoped for’ level. As I read this I thought what other ways could help students do some of the summarizing you talk about? Your ability to summarize is a skill the students may not have yet, or feel confident expressing in large groups. So I’m thinking of other ways this could happen, with me the teacher still doing some guiding but not taking over. Things that come to mind include taping (video/audio) the conversation (whole or parts) then having the group review it & then move into a summarizing exercise/period. This could be done in writing by students (& anonymously include your participation). It could also be a small group exercise. In important piece here is time for students to reflect – which we all do in different ways, time frames, etc. Holding on to the data & being able to revisit it could go a long way here.

  3. Elizabeth Maine says:

    Robin, what I saw in the video I referenced (and have done so much in my own classroom!) is listening to a student make a summarizing comment or inference about the text (for example, “I think Della loves Jim because she bought him a present”), and then add on to that when I move the discussion along (“Great! And I think she really loves him because she sold her most valuable possession, right?). That was a very unsubtle example, but I find myself doing this in subtle ways all the time, rather than asking prompting questions like, “Tell me more about what that means” and just being comfortable with wait time.

    Tracy, you bring up so many excellent points and ideas. Re: taping student conversations – It’s really hard for either a teacher or a student to both participate in a discussion and try to watch the discussion and critique it for content at the same time. Allowing students to observe high-level discussion and comments, and then be able to use that at their own pace both as a reflection tool and as a discussion critique is such a great idea. I also think it is important for us to model the types of responses we want to hear from students, and to make it explicit when we are modeling & what we eventually expect. I know I focused on summarizing in this post, but I think the same principle can be applied to any skill we want to see from students – inferring, making evidence-based claims, etc.

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