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Critical Thinking Bell Ringers

Get your students thinking. We teach in a product-driven age of Standards, behavioral objectives, and progress monitoring. As we head back to school, why not achieve some sort of balance with a 10-minute process-driven bell ringer twice per week? Just display this warm-up activity while taking roll and listen to the happy sounds of brains engaging with some of the greatest brains of human history: from Plato to Shakespeare to Franklin to Rowling.

A brief literary quotation to drive the conversation; a specific directive for observation; a guide to interpretation; a prompt to application in the reading, writing, listening, or speaking context; and a revision task to think out of the box or from a different point of view. Wrap things up in 10 minutes, even though often you’ll hear the “We’re not dones.” Leave them thinking; yes, they are not done.

As much as we try to embed critical thinking, depth of knowledge, Costa’s levels of thinking, or Bloom’s taxonomy into our daily lessons, a specific allocation of time and a concise curricular resource moves us from well-intentioned to committed implementation. If we put it in our planners and don’t have to re-invent the wheel, we’ll get it done. Plus, your students will pester you. They like having their brains stretched. Here’s a sample of a Critical Thinking Bell Ringer that my students love to discuss:

Literary Quotation

“I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them.”

Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)

Definition/Explanation/Reflection: Good friendships take time and effort.

Observation: What do you see? What do you feel? What seem to be the key words?

Interpretation: How would you put this into your own words? What does this mean? What doesn’t this mean? What does this suggest? Why does the author say this?

Application: How can this be used? How could this thought affect something else? What conclusions can be drawn from this? Do you agree with this? How does this apply to you?

Revision: How else could this have been written? Revise this to reflect your point of view or ideas. Create something new to say about this subject.

Student Response:

Wouldn’t it be great to try out four complete Critical Thinking Opener Toolkit lessons?

Get the Critical Thinking Openers Toolkit FREE Resource:

To purchase the Critical Thinking Openers Toolkit with a full year of 64 bell ringers, visit our product page at Pennington Publishing.

“Marvelous tool in helping me to provoke more critical thinking in my students.”

Marsha Lewis

“Critical Thinking Openers is an excellent product. Provides additional writing practice and is thought provoking.”

Lisa Moore

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How to Teach Critical Thinking

Students are bombarded with content. Knowledge increases exponentially, and the entire storehouse of human knowledge gained over the last six thousand years is now doubled every five years, or less. The old educational philosophy of filling empty heads with the cumulative wisdom of the ages is yielding to a new pedagogy. Knowledge as a product is now being replaced with knowledge as a process.

This is not to say that our accumulated knowledge is irrelevant. Quite to the contrary, it is essential. Without the inductive and deductive reasoning developed by the Ancient Greeks, and without the scientific method, refined by the Enlightenment thinkers, we would have no foundation upon which to build a new process-centered design, commonly referred to as critical thinking.

However, we must begin to practice what we preach. If we are to equip Twenty-First-Century students with the tools they need to add to our “knowledge pool,” we need to re-evaluate how we spend our time in the classroom. The standards-based movement, prevalent in many American schools today, is primarily product-driven. Despite much talk about differentiating instruction, according to the needs of students as indicated by diagnostic assessments, the primary delivery of knowledge in most classrooms remains product-centered. And all students learn the same product, the same way, and on the same timetable to perform (hopefully) the same way on standards-based assessments.  The pressures on teachers to conform to this antiquated model of knowledge acquisition are formidable.

Change Their Way of Thinking

One way to implement change is incremental. A small, but effective way to start introducing critical thinking into the classroom is with the traditional “opener” activities. These “bell-ringer” activities can establish an important framework for learning and a mind-set for the day’s activities, even if they are product-centered.

To accomplish their process-centered mission, critical thinking openers can help a teacher teach a schema for thinking that students can learn, practice, and apply with the coaching assistance of their teachers.

The word schema comes from the Greek word “σχήμα” (skēma), which means a mental planning process. The schema that I propose is not original, by any means. It involves four simple steps: Observation, Interpretation, Application, and Revision. Observation is What do you see? Interpretation is What does it mean? Application is How can it be used? Revision is How can it be changed?

Teaching Procedures

To provoke process-thinking, students need a context from which to explore the schema described above. One great way to stimulate young minds is with famous literary quotations from the greatest thinkers and writers of all time, including contemporary minds from all knowledge disciplines. The web is filled with great quotes (as are some of your students). Simply post the quote and explain the context and/or vocabulary as is necessary. Introduce the critical thinking schema one at a time.  Then, have students take time to think, write, and interactively discuss the components of the critical thinking schema in response to the literary quotation.

Explore individual responses, paired responses, cooperative group responses, whole class responses, and your own responses as teacher-coach. Combine instructional methods. For example, starting off with a teacher “think aloud” on the Observation will stimulate paired written responses on the Interpretation, which will provoke terrific whole class discussions on the Application, which will engender creative and original individual ideas on the Revisions.

Teacher Think Alouds

To learn the four critical thinking schemata, teacher modeling is essential.  Creative thinking and problem-solving is certainly not exclusively a natural process. Developing thinkers do not have a priori understanding about how to effectively observe, interpret, apply, and revise. Thus, teachers play a crucial role in helping to develop good thinkers.

Teaching students to carry on an internal dialog while they think is vitally important. As “talking to the reader” significantly increases writing coherency and “talking to the author” significantly increases reading comprehension, so does internal dialog significantly increase effective thinking. In fact, good thinkers are adept at practicing internal metacognitive strategies.  Students who consciously practice these self-monitoring strategies develop better problem-solving skills than those who do not. Students need to learn how to flexibly adapt these strategies by observing teacher modeling and then practicing what has been demonstrated.

Think Aloud Sample Lesson

1. Select a short, high interest literary quotation from a story familiar to all students. Post the quotation on the board, LCD, Smartboard®, or overhead projector.

2. Tell students that they are to listen to your thoughts carefully, as you read the quotation and that they are not allowed to interrupt with questions during your reading. Read the quotation out loud and interrupt the reading frequently with concise comments about the vocabulary, word choice, syntax, and historical context. Re-read difficult parts and make comments about the ideas that are presented. Ask questions of the author, especially about parts of the quotation that you do not fully understand. Some teachers like to use other voices for the internal dialogue and their normal voices for the reading.

3. After reading and thinking out loud, ask students if they think they understood the quotation better because of your verbalized thoughts rather than just by passively reading without active thoughts. Their answer will be “Yes,” if you have read and thought out loud effectively.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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