An Unexpected Class Visitor

The Fruit of Making Thinking VisibleMy sixth graders and I recently began our student-driven inquiry and project-based learning on human rights. This is my second year to use project-based learning into my classroom, and I hope everything I learned from last year’s Dive Into PBL will merge with my growing expertise at making thinking visible to help my students better explore and understand the topic.

I have several drafts about our learning and the second iteration of this inquiry in my queue, but I’m not ready to share them yet. I need a few more days to reflect and write before publishing. Never fear though, friends, I have a goal of returning to reflect, write, and share on a regular schedule again soon. So…

A Little Background Information

This week my school with The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence and CASIE is hosting Project Zero Perspectives: How & Where Does Learning Thrive? As part of the conference, we invited educators to visit PDS during our regular school day to see how we have integrated ideas from Project Zero into our school. My students and I are in the middle of our research and inquiry, but we were expecting visitors to stop by our class this morning.

Over the past few days we have used several thinking routines to help us design our learning and explore our chosen topics. Specifically, we’ve used question starts and question sorts to find our topics and write our driving questions. We used  a modified version of think, puzzle, explore to decide on our knows and need to knows. Then, we began researching. We’re using Diigo to bookmark and annotate our resources, and we make our thinking visible about the resources by writing comments on them using the ladder of feedback. We also have specific roles for our annotating (PDF) thanks to my friend Bill Ferriter.

An Exciting Day

Peel the Fruit #photo365 #PDSmemToday, my class spent time working on our personal understanding maps and sharing some of our previous thinking (wondering) on the class map. The boys then jumped into their research and annotating roles. We had a limited amount of time, but the boys worked hard and had a few minutes to share with the class and our visitors what they learned from their personal research today. The boys then went back to their individual maps to peel the fruit of their own understanding. They also shared new understandings on the class map. (See above.) During the few remaining minutes of the class we reflected on our learning with the compass points routine and shared those reflections. Near the end of our class time, Mrs. Susan Droke (my administrator) and Dr. Ron Ritchhart (PZ researcher and author of Making Thinking Visible) visited my class, and they were able to see a bit of what we are doing. I felt honored and humbled to have Ron in my room. I’m not sure I can fully explain how much his work has affected mine.

After class I raced across campus to enjoy lunch and conversation with our visitors (completely forgetting about my lunch-time duties). I also participated in a brief panel discussion with several of my PDS colleagues before racing back to my room just before my next class arrived. I had given up my prep time to interact with our guests, and I still had several things to do before the boys arrived. Fast on my heels, another of our administrators arrived to let me know that Dr. Ritchhart was on his way to spend the afternoon in my room. “Yikes! An unexpected class visitor!”

The afternoon was fine. The boys in the afternoon class did a good job, but our time allotment was different so I modified some elements on the fly. I also felt a little scrambled because I had not taken down the work from the morning class and I had to carve out time for a Valentine’s Day celebration. Nevertheless, it was an exciting and productive day of learning, and I really enjoyed the interaction I had with Ron about the thinking and learning in my room. I’m also a little starstruck. While Dr. Ritchhart may not be famous by Hollywood standards, in D218 at PDS he’d receive a star on our walk of fame. I was so excited about the visit that after texting my wife, I had to contact my friend and visible thinking/inquiry pal Edna Sackson just to share the news.

@whatedsaid I have to share this with someone who’ll understand. Ron Ritchhart spent most of today in my classroom. 🙂 — Philip Cummings (@Philip_Cummings) February 12, 2014

@Philip_Cummings Oh how fabulous! You picked the right person 🙂 Tell me all about it! — Edna Sackson (@whatedsaid) February 12, 2014

@whatedsaid My school is hosting a CASIE PZ weekend so he was here. Lots of teachers were observing how we implement PZ. Ron visited my… — Philip Cummings (@Philip_Cummings) February 12, 2014

@whatedsaid …class this morning then decided to return to spend the whole afternoon. It was unexpected, but I was honored. 🙂 — Philip Cummings (@Philip_Cummings) February 12, 2014

@Philip_Cummings Will you blog about what you observed, what it made you think and what you wonder? 🙂 — Edna Sackson (@whatedsaid) February 12, 2014

Seeing, Thinking, & Wondering About Today


  • I saw Dr. Ritchhart observing everything happening in the room very closely.
  • I saw him pull out his iPad and record my giving instructions and facilitating the learning.
  • I observed Ron asking questions about Diigo and our annotating roles.
  • I observed him taking notes, snapping pictures, and writing down observation as the class progressed.
  • I noticed boys reading, researching, and tackling their selected roles.
  • I saw boys needing redirection back to the assigned tasks.
  • I watched two boys get frustrated with one another and my having to step in and referee.
  • I saw boys making great progress in their understanding.
  • I recognize some boys didn’t fully understand how to do their roles well.


  • I think my room was more chaotic than it would have been had I had just a few minutes more notice.
  • I think Ron is genuinely interested in our PBL and how I’m using PZ routines and protocols in designing of the learning.
  • I’m gathering that PZ hasn’t focused much on technology integration.
  • I think Ron showed interest in how and why I designed the learning space the way I did.
  • I think he appreciates my efforts to have a student-centered class with student-driven learning.
  • I think he appreciates my students’ thinking and questioning.
  • I realize some of my students need better scaffolding or modeling.


  • I wonder what he wrote in his notes and what he’d say if I asked him to do a ladder of feedback based on his visit.
  • I wonder specifically what his suggestions would be.
  • I’m curious if there will be opportunities for further interactions this week or in the future.
  • I’m curious about his own experiences teaching with project-based learning and inquiry.
  • I wonder if he noticed the freedom my students have to move.
  • I wonder why he chose to re-visit my room of all the classrooms in my building.
  • I wonder if he noticed how nervous I was. (I got over it.)
  • I’m curious if he noticed how much I modified things on the fly.
  • I wonder where this new connection could lead.

It was a full day. There is more to consider, but it’s late and I have several big days of learning ahead. Thank you, Edna, for the push to write about today. Hopefully, someone will find this post beneficial. I’ll do my best to get back on schedule soon. As always, I’d love to read your reaction and/or comments.

This post was originally shared on February 12, 2014 at

About Philip Cummings

school administrator, husband, father of 4, and finding beauty in the mess
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8 Responses to An Unexpected Class Visitor

  1. whatedsaid says:

    Hi Philip and welcome to Inquire Within!

    I’m a fan of Visible Thinking as you know, so I enjoyed reading about how you are creating a culture of thinking in your class, and especially the way you have made your own thinking visible regarding the visit from Ron 🙂 (For those who are not familiar with VT, start here

    I’ve picked ConnectExtendChallenge as the thinking routine for my response-
    Connections –
    The post reminded me of when I participated in one of Ron’s workshops and the time you Skyped into our Reading group to join our discussion about the book Making Thinking Visible.
    I noticed that for you, like for many of the teachers at my school, making thinking visible has become a natural part of your practice as you build a culture of thinking.
    I’ve never used the routine Peel the Fruit and your post has given me an idea of how I might!
    I love the idea of ‘personal thinking maps’ and a ‘class thinking map’. I’ll share that with the teachers with whom I work. It will be great to use with the teachers too.
    I love the way you have your students use Ladder of Feedback in response to the resources.
    I’d love to know more about the way you use Diigo and in particular the annotating roles you mentioned. How does this work?
    I’d love to revisit Visible Thinking with one of our voluntary professional learning groups and find a way for you you to join us again.


    • Thank you for commenting, Edna. I immediately connected my experience to you and our interactions about PZ and VT, too. This is my third year to I learn and design using these routines and protocols and they have added tremendous depth to my and my students’ thinking. This is my first attempt at using Peel the Fruit (Understanding Maps) with the students. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ve used it in my planning and design for awhile. My reasoning is that I really want my students to focus more on their learning/understanding than just on the physical projects. We struggled with that last year. As for how we use the Diigo groups, I plan to write about that in more detail. I’ll share the link with you when the post is up. My friend Bill Ferriter has wonderful resources that have helped me. Would it help if I shared a copy of the understanding map? Let me know.


  2. Excellent posts and is motivates me to look into how I can use more visible thinking tools. Peel the fruit…more like onion! :)I’ll try this most definitely. Thank you for sharing.


  3. lindybuckley2 says:

    Hi Philip,

    My favourite Inquire Within posts are the ones where someone shares the thinking and doing that they are experiencing, just as you have done so well in your post. It helps me greatly to compare and reflect on the thinking and doing that’s going on in my classroom. I too love the ‘Personal Thinking Maps’ and ‘Class Thinking Maps’ and the peeling the fruit.
    I am interested to hear how you make up for the PZ missing technology integration aspect. I hope that you will share that too!

    Thank you!


  4. Pingback: Sharing blogging with colleagues | The Possibility Post

  5. Thanks for the thoughts and journal of the day. I like the play by play style of the post. I also really like the PDF you shared of roles for annotating within the group. Its exactly what I was looking for. A double whammy to encourage group interactions and evaluation of sources. Thanks!


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