From Big Ideas to More Questions: Exploring the Causal Model

Over the past couple of months, I have led professional learning workshops at the district, state, and national level. The focus of each of these sessions has either been on classroom discourse or critical thinking. Of course, both of these topics complement each other with students benefiting from thoughtful implementation of activities consisting of protocols generating the type of thinking required for each.

A couple of summers ago I attended Edufest, a conference on gifted and talented education, at Boise State University. During this week-long conference, I attended several sessions on inquiry-based thinking, critical thinking, and creativity. In one of the sessions led by Cloyce Weaver, Student Achievement Officer in Ontario, I became reacquainted with the Causal Model strategy. I have adapted the strategy adding collaborative learning and physical movement.

The Causal Model explores cause and effect. The activity begins with students focusing on the end result, the effect, and proceeding to determine the causes of the result. The activity is relatively easy to implement. Basic steps include:

  1. On a sheet of paper, write the end result in the upper left corner. For example, I might write, students are not engaged in class.
  2. Ask the students the question, “What caused this?” Students generate a list of causes. In this example, students may have determined the following causes: boredom, hunger, exhaustion, not challenged, social issues, etc.
  3. During the brainstorm of causes, pause to identify possible connections.
  4. When students have commenced with the brainstorm, create a Big Ideas section in the lower right. In this section, students choose one of the concepts and write a statement using a relational verb on the list provided. In my example, students may have chosen the concept, boredom, and the relational verb, affects: Boredom affects the energy level of students reducing the level of engagement in the classroom. The Big Ideas section is completed with multiple sentences focusing on varying concepts.
  5. Once the Big Ideas sections is complete, students determine whether or not they believe the statements are true or not. If they believe the statement is true, they keep the statement, and if they believe it is false, they eliminate it.

These directions outline the basic steps of the Causal Model. There are multiple ways to modify this activity adding collaboration and physical movement. When I modeled this activity in recent workshops, I used chart paper to begin. I wrote the end result, the effect, on the chart paper located at the front of the room. Participants wrote the statement on sheets provided. Together, we brainstormed a couple of causes before participants worked with a partner to create a list of causes.

While a list of causes was being produced in partner groups, I randomly handed out sticky notes to each participant. Participants chose a relational verb based on the color of sticky note they were provided. They then chose a concept and wrote one statement on the sticky note.

Purple: Creates, Challenges, Impeded
Pink:  Undermines, Inhibits, Destroys
Blue:  Affects, Reduces, Supports
Yellow:  Produces, Embeds Reflects
Green:  Influences, Enables, Limits
Orange: Challenges, Engenders, Enables

On my signal, participants stood an found a partner with the same color of sticky note.  They took turns reading their statements. If they both agreed the statements were true, they added them to their big ideas lists. The pair found another pair with a different color of sticky.  They took turns reading their statements, adding true statements to their big ideas list. As a group of four, they added additional statement to their big ideas lists using different concepts and different relational verbs.

The activity could end with class discussion and student reflection of the experience. Or the activity could expand by changing Big Ideas statements into “How” or “Why” questions. My example, boredom affects the energy level of students reducing the level of engagement in the classroom, could be written as How does boredom affect the energy level of students causing a reduction in the level of engagement in the classroom? The questions generated could develop into mini research projects for small groups, or they could become the start of a Socratic Seminar.

Rolling with Critical Thinking

As we address the needs students in our communities, schools, and classrooms, establishing an environment rich with critical thinking experiences provides these youth with opportunities to grow academically as they are given the skill set to interact and connect with those around them. Facets of critical thinking including inquiry-based teaching (.46), problem-solving teaching (.67), cooperative learning (.40), and meta-cognitive strategies (.55) all have effect sizes (greater than .40) that have the “potential to accelerate student achievement” (Hattie’s work examining 250+ influences on student achievement).

Critical thinking is defined as, “the mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism” (The Foundation for Critical Thinking).

I have presented multiple professional learning sessions in my district as well as at local and national conferences on critical thinking activities teachers can use in the classroom. One of the quotes I like participants to ponder and analyze is as follows:

“Critical and creative thinking strategies are not merely “fun” or “cute” activities to be pulled out at the end of the week or semester, or after the state tests are over for the year in order to fill time and entertain students. They are ways of deeply engaging and interacting with ideas and concepts in meaningful context, building meaning and understanding through multiple processing of ideas and information in increasingly sophisticated levels of thinking, adding depth and complexity to the content being learned, and finding personal relevance in the learning process” (Hickerson, 2013).

While critical thinking activities may be used to pique interest, it is important to realize that the ability to become a critical thinker is a foundational skill necessary to furthering deep understanding.

I’m a big advocate for using sentence/question stems in the classroom to help scaffold inquiry, reflection, and thought. Staying true to my belief that learning should be interactive, I developed critical thinking cubes. Each cube has six sets of question/thinking stems based on the 8 Intellectual Standards. There are multiple purposes to using these cubes, but I like to use them to interact with text. During the second read of a text, students roll a dice and pick from the question/sentence stems to discuss as a small group the text. Depending on the purpose for reading the text, I specifically select the critical thinking cube I want small groups to use. An example of a cube I have used recently to analyze the evidence students have identified to explore a text, is found by clicking on the following link: Critical Thinking Cube #6.

The discussion levels of each small group using the critical thinking cubes increases dramatically when the cubes are provided in comparison to conversations where the cubes are not used. Sometimes I like to add another layer by utilizing the World Cafe Protocol to mix up groups and deepen conversations of a text. This protocol is described in an earlier post: World Cafe and PLCing.

The Power of You: Recap of the KDP Convo in Sunny Virginia


For the past three days, I have attended workshops, receptions, and keynotes at the 2019 Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education’s Convocation in Norfolk, Virginia. Keynotes and panel sessions by David C. Berliner, H. Richard Milner IV, Angela Valenzuela, David Gillborn, Jacqueline Irvine, and Gary Orfield focused on culturally responsive teaching practices, diversity in the workplace, the issue of color-blindness, and the need for teachers to advocate for themselves in the profession. 

In addition to these sessions, I presented a Deep Dive session titled, “Inquiry-Based Teaching Practices That Lead to Deeper Learning.”  A description of the session I led is as follows:

Inquiry-based instruction builds community and raises the expectations of all students, as students take the lead on asking questions and seeking the answers. In this interactive session, participants engage in inquiry-based activities that promote student discussions, collaboration, and critical thinking. Highly effective teaching strategies and classroom application are discussed in pairs and small groups. Participants leave with several strategies to use immediately in their classrooms.

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John Helgeson, International Committee Chair; Leana Malinowski, Membership Committee Chair; Shannon Rice, Executive Council; Clinton Smith, Public Policy Chair

Even though I find the sessions and keynotes valuable, I find connecting with my colleagues from around the world even more valuable. I served on the Executive Council for KDP from 2016-2018, and I currently serve as Co-Chair of the International Committee and a Professional Network Liason. At this year’s convocation, I was able to reconnect with colleagues I consider friends as we discussed and shared our passions regarding the educational field.  I met new friends from Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya opening doors to new areas of the world and collaborative learning opportunities.  It was a great convo, and I’m sad to see it finish (but I’m also exhausted and ready for some much-needed sleep!).   

I encourage anyone interested in the educational field to check out  In addition to powerful articles found in the New Teacher Advocate, the KDP Record,  and The Educational Forum, The Educator Learning Network is available, which KDP describes as a “learning environment that offers a variety of research-based courses designed to support teachers in their career advancement and development of professional competencies.”

I plan on sharing more information and resources used in my presentation in future blog posts.

Wet with Knowledge: WAETAG Recap

I recently attended the Washington Association of Educators of the Talented and Gifted’s (WAETAG) annual conference. Attendees of the conference come from all around the state of Washington and the Pacific Northwest. While it rained outside, my mind was showered with ideas and reflection inside and the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from my district, Washington State ELA Fellows, and previous attendees from other professional learning experiences.

I had the wonderful opportunity of presenting two sessions during the conference. On Friday, I presented, “Championing Deep Engagement Through Moving Discussions.” The following is a description of the session: Students experiencing high expectations, deep engagement, and strong instruction are more likely to be successful in school. Increasing the number of opportunities to be deeply engaged in classroom discussion activities extends the academic growth beyond that of a typical school year. In this interactive session, participants will engage in physical movement activities paired with explicit discussion strategies they can use to move students beyond compliance into deep engagement promoting critical thinking. I specifically focused on the following strategies and protocols: Think Trix, Causal Model, Questioning Roles, World Cafe, Gallery Walk, Pair-to-Square, and Four Corner Tap In. I have included some of these strategies and protocols in previous posts, and I hope to address them in future posts.

On Saturday, I presented, “Rolling Critical Thinking Past the ‘Static-Sphere.'” The following is a description of this session: Providing a foundation of critical thinking skills moves students from surface level to higher-order thinking narrowing opportunity gaps. Learning experiences are challenged and enriched when students question assumptions, reason through logic with supporting evidence, and seek out diversity of thought and collaboration amongst those with differing points of view. In this interactive session, participants will roll the critical thinking dice challenging their own assumptions and opening doors to practices that move the critical thinking needle. In this session, I the strategies and protocols I specifically focused included: Annotated Gallery Walk, Give One/Get One, Conver-Stations, Critical Thinking Cubes-Group, Critical Thinking Cubes-Individual, Quick Write, and Cognitive Rigor Matrix Cubes. Just like I mentioned before, I plan on addressing some of these topics in future posts.

The conference is a great conference to attend regardless if attendees have talented and gifted students in the classroom as any reflection on teaching practices is essential for teacher improvement and student success.

Reflecting Via Effect Size

I meet monthly with a group of job alike curriculum specialists/instructional specialists from neighboring school districts. I started the group as a way to network with others with a similar job position as mine with the hope of learning with and from each other to both empower and motivate us in the work we do. We meet once a month for two hours. The first hour is devoted to sharing our work and/or practices. For example, we might share an overview of a presentation we attended at a local or national conference, we might run through a workshop we plan to propose or present at a conference, or we might ask advice on a problem of practice we have identified. The second hour focused on a book study. Last year we read The Book in Question by Carol Jago. This year we are reading The Art of Coaching by Elena Aguilar. For each hour, we take turns presenting our learning or facilitating a new protocol for the book discussion. The collaborative and collegial nature of this group has proven to be powerful and motivational.

In September, we met for the first time this school year. During the first hour of our meeting, two of the members shared information from a session they attended over the summer focusing on John Hattie’s effect size. According to Visible Learning, “His research, Visible Learning, is the culmination of more than 25 years of examining and synthesizing more than 1,600 meta-analyses comprising more than 95,000 studies involving 300 million students around the world.” John Hattie has identified 250 factors that influence student achievement. A 2019 updated list of these factors can be found at As a networking group, we reviewed the list of factors and reflected on the ones that we felt were most critical to our roles. We specifically focused on anything greater than a .40 effect size as anything greater than this effect size represents more than a typical year’s growth.

I have since taken this information and used it in workshops I have led for both middle school and high school teachers as a way to reflect on our practices and set goals for the year. After explaining what a significant effect size is, a simple protocol to use has participants move through the following steps:

1. Skim and scan units taught during the year as well as the purpose behind the units.

2. Skim and scan current teaching strategies or approaches.

3. Skim and scan the Visible Learning Matrix.

4. Write a goal for the year based on the information.

Throughout the process, time for discussion with partners and small groups helps to clarify and deepen the reflection process.

These practices both validate current work as well as encourage new direction for educating ourselves on effective teaching practices we want to improve on or add to our repertoire for the 2019-2020 school year. Teachers and colleagues have appreciated this resource as it is providing a focus for our collaborative work within our Professional Learning Communities, departments, and one-to-one coaching sessions. Similarly, it is providing a foundation for two action research projects I plan to collaborate on for the year.

Making a Movement Toward Inclusivity and Other Topics

There are several ways to interpret what it means to be “teaching through movement” in and out of the classroom. While a majority of my previous blog posts have focused on physical movement in the classroom, I am shifting the focus of my blog to be more inclusive of pedagogy, philosophy, social justice, equity, and so on. I will continue to blog about physical movement, but I’ll also include other topics.

In August I had the opportunity of being a panelist at the United Nations Civil Society Conference in August.  This year’s conference focused on Sustainable Development Goal 11, “to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030.” The panel I was one was titled, “Access to Quality Education for All-A Global Approach.” 

I had the honor of presenting with three outstanding individuals including Dr. Rose Carderelli, Executive Council member of Kappa Delta Pi, Childhood Education International Director, and United Nations NGO/Department of Global Communication Director; Dr. Vicky Tusken, President of the KDP Executive Council and Secondary Curriculum Coordinator in DeKalb, Illinois; and Dianne Whitehead, Chief Executive Officer of Childhood Education International in Washington, DC. Education contributes to the success of communities and their citizens. Furthermore, working toward ensuring a quality education for all students promotes inclusivity, safety, resiliency, and sustainability of students as they engage with their communities.  Topics of our panel included the education of refugee children, social justice, and education diplomacy. My portion of the panel presentation focused on what countries and school systems can learn from exploring effective professional development models from high achieving countries.  

Overall, the conference provided multiple opportunities to network with people around the globe as well as learn from and with individuals as we continue to work toward SDG 11. An official press release of the conference can be found here:

Representatives of Global Civil Society Adopt Outcome, Youth Climate Compact, as Thousands Attend Historic United Nations Gathering in Salt Lake City

Moving the Ball Forward

One of my favorite past times right now is watching my kids play soccer. I think there are several reasons for this. For one, the fall and spring soccer seasons are played outdoors and being outside enhances the senses of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Regardless of whether there sunny skies or drizzling grey clouds, the matches are full of positive energy and soaring skills.

The soccer season came to close this past weekend. I’m fortunate enough to be the coach of my son’s second-grade team. While they are still little, I have watched them grow from their kindergarten selves taking several swings at kicking a round object toward any location on the field to embracing the second-grade force dribbling around their opponents, passing the ball up and down, and striking from all distances. What I am most proud of is the increase in confidence, sportsmanship, and teamwork of each player. I often ask myself the following two questions:

  • How did we get to the point of being able to move the ball forward?
  • How do we continue to do so as the challenges increase and overall goals change?

As I reflect on the season, I also reflect as a educational leader. I approach coaching my son’s team in the same way that I approach any type of teaching experience. There are four components that I work through in any situation:

  • Plan with a vision of learning in mind
    • What are my beliefs?
    • Where do I want to be?
    • How do I grow/help others grow?
  • Consider the learning of each member
    • What are the strengths?
    • What are the needs?
    • What are the areas of growth?
    • Where does the boundary of potential lie and how do we push beyond it?
  • Provide feedback
    • What are successes?
    • What are areas to work on?
    • What is the plan for the future?
  • Process and reflect
    • How do I build in time for members and myself to process and reflect on learning?

These four components are repeated and integrated with one another and other aspects of coaching, leading, and teachings. The end of the soccer seasons and/or the end of the school year is a perfect opportunity to process and reflect. It is during these moments that I seek out my own professional learning opportunities or reflect on the vision of learning that I hold so dear. It is during this time that I truly consider how we move the ball forward next season and next year feeling empowered to do so.

World Cafe and PLCing

This is the time of the school year that two works tend to enter the mind of educators everywhere: testing and reflecting. Of course, educators are giving assessments throughout the year, and they are reflecting on instruction moves, assessment results, student interactions, and so forth. I often am told that in the whirlwind of the end of the school year, teachers have limited time to take a breath, breathe out and reflect. Part of reflection involves being able to process what has happened.

In recent Professional Development sessions I have facilitated, I have led teachers through a reflection process utilizing the World Cafe Protocol. My version of the protocol is as follows:

Step one: Cover tables (for groups of 4-5) using large strips of butcher paper (or poster paper).

Step two: Engage in some sort of shared learning experience such as a shared reading or lesson. For example, in my PD session prior to this activity, I had participants read an article, mark the text, and then generate a series of questions using the Question Formulation Technique ( This set a reading foundation and a session culture of asking questions.

Step three: Divide participants into groups of 4-5 and assign groups to a table. Participants will engage in a discussion using the shared experience as a foundation to reflect on student learning throughout the year. Questions for the discussions come from a PLC format. The first question groups will discuss is, “What do we expect our students to learn?” As they discuss, members will jot down notes or sketch notes capturing their conversation on the butcher paper covering their tables. Discussion time will vary, but groups should have about 5-10 minutes to discuss.

Step four: Groups will choose a “table host” to remain at the table. The remain group members will move to a different table. Once participants are settled, the host will provide a one-minute summary of the first question. Groups will then discuss the second question, “How will we know students are learning?” Discussion notes and/or sketch notes will be added to the butcher paper of the “new” table. Groups will discuss the new question for about 5-10 minutes.

Step five: The table host will remain and the groups will move to a new table. The host will review the first two questions for two minutes. The group will then discuss the third question, “How will we respond when students do not learn what is expected?” Discussion highlights will be recorded.

Step six: Groups will rotate a final time. The table host will review the first three questions before the group discusses the final question, “How will we respond when some students already know what is expected?”

Step seven: Participants will return to their original spots and review the documented conversations at their table. They will then reflect individually on the process before engaging in a large group reflection.

While this is time-consuming protocol, is provide opportunities for movement, small group discussions, multiple ways to process, and a focus on questions. Educators that have participated in this protocol have appreciated the time they are allowed to reflect on the year in an organized and focused manner. I challenge you to use all of it or part of it with your students and/or colleagues you work with.

For more information on the world cafe protocol, click here:

Moving Through Writer’s Block


Next week I travel to Chicago to present a session at the ASCD Empower19 Conference. The session I present focuses on overcoming writer’s block. Overcoming writer’s block challenges teachers and students. As a result, many secondary student writers struggle to produce multiple types of writing for various purposes required to meet Common Core State Standards and new state standards. Explicit writing strategies can alleviate barriers and help students grow academically through purposeful and personalized activities. Physical movement paired with instructional strategies helps engage the brain, reduce stress and anxiety, build social and emotional skills, and motivate those who struggle with writer’s block.

The session I present will be fast and interactive.  Participants will engage in physical movement activities paired with explicit writing strategies they can use to motivate students to become proficient writers.

Provocations Continuum Strategy

One of the strategies that I am going to introduce was highlighted during a WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of the Talented and Gifted) Conference workshop I attended in October. Kimberly Mitchell led a session on inquiry. A simple strategy she introduced was the Provocations Continuum. I have adapted the strategy as a way to brainstorm ideas for writing. In my version of the strategy, a provocative statement is displayed on the projector screen such as, “Tackle football should be banned for students under the age of 15.” Students will be given 1 minute to process the information and decide on a scale of 1-10 how much they support/agree with the statement (1-little or no agreement, 10-100% agreement) before they will be directed to stand. At my signal, usually some sort of music playing, students will find a partner and decide who is A and who is B. When the music stops, person A will share his or her position without interruption for one minute. After a minute, person B will share. When the music plays, a new statement will be shown, participants will have a minute to process before finding a new partner to share.

After 3-5 statements, participants will be directed to find their seats and write down thoughts on one of the statements. These thoughts may be of their own thinking or one of their partners. The idea is to provide participants with the opportunity process, discuss, and move within a safe environment. These actions help reduce anxiety with movement and processing time, offer choices for individuals, and provide early content for writing. This activity can vary. Instead of statements, short video clips could be shown or images can be projected. If the activity is used multiple times, variety will increase the novelty.

A few years ago I wrote an article for the AMLE Magazine titled, “Addressing Writer’s Block Through Physical Movement.” A link to the article can be found here.


Honoring the Emotions of the Holiday Season

Balls Emotions Smiley Cute Smilies FunnyThe other day I sat in the stands at the local pool watching my kids move through the water during swim practice. There is something calming about watching swimmers glide through the water amidst the repetitive rumble of feet making waves as each swimmer moves back and forth. This serenity is enhanced as I witness the persistence of my kids wanting to improve their skills and working through the practice despite being tired or disappointed by actions or activities earlier in the day. I know they find peace as well, and a bad day can turn into a better day.

In moments like this, I tend to reflect on life in general. I think it is because the senses are being stimulated:  the faint teal paint of the walls paired with the light blue water, the dense heat of the pool house embraced by the humidity of the water, the chlorinated smell, the rumbling thunder of the swimmers, and the self-awareness as the bind centers on one thought before moving to another.

As we move through the holiday season, it is critical that students are given multiple opportunities to process and reflect. The constant stimulation from the bombardment of advertisements, music, excitement, sugary treats, and interactions can send emotions in many different directions. Building in time for students to think and find a sense of calm is essential to reinforcing and growing the relationships with peers and between students and teachers. It is during this time of year, that I recommend adding additional, or longer, processing and reflecting moments. This may be challenging as schedules are in flux and the curriculum tends to drive teaching in a rush before the holiday break. I am including a few simple ways to add processing time during a lesson.

  1.  EMOJI Shuffle:  For this activity, post a variety of emojis around the classroom. Direct students to move to an emoji that represents their understanding of the lesson at hand. Ask students to pair up and discuss why they chose the emoji they did. This activity can be repeated for different components of the lesson. A slight alternative could be to have students move to the emoji based on how they are feeling at the moment (not necessarily lesson based). Students can write thoughts on a post-it while they are standing next to the emoji. Once they have done so, they then crumble up the post-it and deposit it in the recycle bin before focusing on lesson specific topics/questions.  This honors their emotions without the vulnerability associated with sharing about their feelings.
  2. Sensory Breathing:  I attended a conference in the fall for teachers of gifted students. This activity is meant to help lower stress levels and anxiety of any student. The activity is simple. Direct students to look at something in the room. Once they have picked an object, instruct them to take a deep breath and then breathe out as you count slowly to ten.  Direct students to pick a different object to look at and repeat the breathing process. This continues with five objects. After five objects, students are directed to focus on five different sounds. After sounds, students focus on five different touches.
  3. Color Walk: Distribute paint strips to table groups with warm and cold colors. Direct students to choose a paint strip that represents a color they either like or based on their reactions to a guiding question or topic. Give students time to think about why they have chosen the color strip they have and consider actions they can take based on the number of color choices on the paint strip (some may have four, some may have five) Have students pair up and discuss their choice of paint strip. Depending on space, students can walk around the room, through the hall, or outside discussion reactions and possible actions (answers to the question, next steps to determine learning, additional questions they have, etc.)

These are only three activities, but each of these activities acknowledges current feelings and emotions. The recognition of these emotions, even if just for self-awareness, can help foster a sense of safety allowing relationships to strengthen while reducing stress and anxiety associated with this time of year.