Visible Thinking: Overview

Of all the workshops and professional development I have taken over the years, I must say that the Visible Thinking workshop is by far the BEST PD I have ever taken.  Using Visible Thinking routines has changed the way I teach writing in my classes.

Visible Thinking Cover

If you have not seen this book, then get thee to an Amazon account!  It is filled with routine exercises that get all students involved, even your most reluctant participant.   Even if you only select one or two routines to use throughout the year, regular use will soon have students knowing what to expect when they see Post-It Notes and poster paper!

If you click on the book, it will take you to Visible Thinking website where you can find a wealth of free materials to get you started.

My VT routine of choice is “See/Think/Wonder,” and I use it at least once a week with all five of my classes.  (By the way, using routines like this help to fulfill the “routine writing” component of the PARCC framework.)

This is how I consistently use “See/Think/Wonder” with my kids:

  • First, I had them bring in a journal that we could keep in class.
  • I have them open to a clean page in the journal, and then give them a topic heading for the exercise.
  • Students write the words “I see” on the next line, and then number a column 1-10.
  • I place some sort of a visual prompt on the front screen.  I have used paintings, maps, photographs, music videos, movie clips (for those exercises that also involve audio, such as a video, I have them alter the phrase at the top to “I Notice” so that they include not only what they see, but what they hear.  If I decide to simply use a piece of music or a recorded performance, then I modify the phrase to “I Hear”)
  • Students look closely and write down ten things they see (or notice, or hear) in the prompt.  In the beginning of the  year, they listed the most obvious items using little more than one word at a time.  As we continue to do the routine, students are now looking for details that others may have missed.  In the first quarter, I was satisfied with a list of nouns as their details.  Now that we are in the second quarter, I am requiring adjective/noun combinations.  In quarter three, we shall move to adjective/adjective/noun combinations (in honor of the Bard).
  • Once each has generated a list of ten items, they have to go find a compadre in the class, and the two share lists.  As they are sharing, I have them put a check mark next to items they have seen in common (these are usually the most obvious details).  I give them about five minutes to do the sharing.
  • After each person has shared with a partner, the students return to their own desks and then write “I Think” and “I Wonder” below the “I See” list.  They must then write (in a complete sentence that uses a subordinating conjunction– an explaining word) three things they THINK about what they have seen and then three things they WONDER about what they have seen (or heard).   Because I have them link their “I Think” and “I Wonder” statements to the topic provided at the beginning of the exercise, this eliminates statements like, “I think this is stupid” or “I wonder why those guys don’t get a haircut?” (that was one response to a music video).
  • While they are writing their “I Think” and “I Wonder” statements, I go around the room and give everyone a Post-It Note.  I have modified the original exercise from Making Thinking Visible to make sure that I get examples of all three statements, and I use three different colored Post-Its each time I do the routine; however, I mix up the colors from class to class so that each student doesn’t know which statement that he/she will have to share once they are done writing.  This has helped to make sure that all students complete all parts of the exercise.  If the student knew that his color was for an “I See” statement right away, then there would be little incentive for him/her to complete the “I Think” or “I Wonder” to the best of his ability (intrinsic rewards for a job well done just don’t seem to come natural to 9th graders yet…but I am working on that!).
  • As they finish their statements, I announce: “Anyone with a pretty purple Post-It, write down the most significant thing you saw that your partner didn’t see.  Anyone with a pretty pink Post-It, write down the most significant thing you think about what you have seen.  Anyone with a pretty blue Post-It, write down the most significant thing you wonder about what you have seen.  You have two minutes to fill in your Post-It Note, and when you are done, hold them in the air so that I see a sea of Skittles out there!”
  • Once they are ready, I ask those with the “I See” statements (or the pretty purple Post-Its) to stand up.  Each takes turns reading from their sticky note, and then places it on a giant sticky note poster that I have ready on the front board.  After we hear the list of things that these students saw, I repeat the process with the “I Think” and “I Wonder” Post-Its.
  • After all students have had a chance to share and place their sticky on the poster, it’s time for the writing exercise.

The English Department of the Webster Central School District has embraced the Jane Schaffer method for teaching writing, and I have found that the “See/Think/Wonder” routine lends itself perfectly to the Schaffer Method.  Basically, this is a formulated way of writing paragraphs:

1  Concrete Detail (CD) + 2 Sentences of Commentary (CMs) = 1 Chunk

Chunks are placed between a Topic Sentence (TS) and a Closing Sentence (CS) to complete a Schaffer paragraph.  While this may seem too formulaic for realistic writing, it certainly does away with the plot summaries (all CDs) and pure opinion pieces (all CMs) that many students write.  For a better idea of the Jane Schaffer Method, click the link:


If you look at the “See/Think/Wonder” routine, you will notice that the ten things the students see will become their Concrete Details (CDs) and what they think and wonder become their Commentary (CMs).  They have already identified the less obvious details by checking off things that other students have already noticed, so they can focus on the less obvious, yet possibly significant details that may relate to the topic.

Believe it or not, this entire process can be completed in less than an hour, including writing a solid two-chunk paragraph!  Once you get into the routine, things just move along like clockwork!

I will be sharing specific examples from both my enriched and regents classes.


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