Earlier this month, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I met with Linda Katz and Elizabeth Hollis, two of our 11th grade Language Arts teachers, to plan their upcoming research unit on sustainability.  We wanted to do something fun and interesting to introduce the range of topics to students that would engage them and not begin with them just browsing the resources on the project LibGuide.  We initially considered using the write-around strategy, but with so many sections of classes and possibilities for topics/subtopics, we felt the prep work involved was a bit overwhelming for the time we had available to get the materials together.

We decided to use another strategy, though, that involved thinking and writing called Think, Puzzle, Explorea routine for learning that “sets the stage for deeper inquiry.”  Since many teachers are utilizing strategies from Making Thinking Visible, we felt this would be the perfect learning structure to introduce 11th graders to sustainability topics.  With Think, Puzzle, and Explore, students are asked to reflect and share:

1. What do you think you know about this topic?

2. What questions or puzzles do you have?

3. How can you explore this topic?

Prep Work


We decided to choose eight areas of sustainability and to find an article of interest for each that students could read and respond to individually and collectively as a group.    After we searched and selected articles on eight different topics, we made sets of five for each table so that each student could have a copy to read and mark up or annotate.  Our Library Science student helpers gathered multiple sheets of butcher paper and helped us attach the three “Think, Puzzle, Explore” labels Jennifer crafted for each sheet of paper.  These labels Jennifer created served both as a reminder prompt to nudge students in their responses and as a placeholder for each column where students would record their responses.  We were not sure how quickly the sheets of paper would fill up with student work, so we had extra sheets of butcher paper and labels in case we needed them.  Initially, we thought all six classes could compile their answers on one sheet, but we realized after two classes we definitely need to rotate the response sheets.  During our one period off, 3rd, we finished the prep work for the butcher paper sheets to be used later in the day.  We were grateful we had extra supplies and copies as we discovered two classes could easily fill up a sheet of butcher paper with their thinking.


We began by introducing the procedures for the activity and explaining the logistics and purpose of Think, Puzzle, Explore to the students.  Our goal was for students to sample at least two tables/topics to hopefully fuel their interest and pique their curiosity.

Once we finished the introductory procedures review, students had about two minutes to select a table; for the most, we limited each table to four students.    We also reminded students to choose their tables by topics and not the safety zone of friends!


We gave students about five minutes to quietly read as much as they could of their articles (some were longer or more textually complex than others) and strongly encouraged them to mark up/annotate their articles to have some talking points for collaborative conversation.  Some students also jotted notes in a notebook during this part of the activity and/or during the collective discussion that followed.


Once the five minutes were up, we had students discuss their responses and then collectively compose their responses to “Think, Puzzle, and Explore.”  The discussion and collective composition took anywhere from 5-8 minutes.



We then repeated this process a second time and had students choose a different table and topic.   Once we had completed both rounds, each group got one of our Steelcase Verb dry erase boards, and each member contributed their takeaway reflection, reaction, or big question as the ticket out the door; each student put his/her initials by his/her reflection or question.


Curating the Student Work and Reflections

As classes transitioned, Jennifer and I quickly tidied up tables and captured student work with a digital camera and our iPhones to curate and share with all classes and teachers.    It was a day that was energizing (and a little exhausting) as the work and pace were pretty intense, but we were really pleased with student responses and participation.  We got verbal feedback from several students about how much they enjoyed the activity and for several, the process had given them some topics to think about for subsequent investigation that we’re now starting this week.

In the spirit of crowdsourcing our thinking, we collected all of the “big takeaway” responses and linked to each album on the LibGuide (scroll toward the bottom of the middle column to view by period).  We also had our Library Science students transcribe all of the responses from the butcher paper sheets; I then captured all of them using my scanner app on my phone and uploading the PDFs of the scans to Google Drive, which it made it easy to then send to SlideShare and download the PDFs to my PC for transfer to the LibGuide.   We did consider providing laptops and shared Google Docs for students to record their thinking, but our experience with our students has been that the tactile  aspect of composing and experience seeing each other’s thinking on physical paper is powerful; in hindsight, we felt we made the right choice.

Not only did we build prior knowledge through this activity, but we accomplished our goal to engage students in collective thinking and build/play off each’s other ideas (as it turned out, pairs of classes back to back).  Think, Puzzle, and Explore also provided students a medium to learn a little about a topic and tease out some initial thoughts  Now that we have all of their work uploaded, students can visit it if they want to revisit any initial thinking from last week or use it as a brainstorming tool to further investigate one of those topics although they certainly can go in other directions.

Overall, the four of us felt the activity was successful and a nice bridge to our pre-search this week.  I could also see this structure being used in combination with the pre-search mapping we’re piloting this week ( a blog post coming soon on that and many thanks to our colleague Tasha Bergson-Michelson for inspiration on pre-search strategy mapping) if students were going to be composing group papers or if time permitted “birds of feather” collaborative work once students had an initial topic in mind.   We definitely hope to use this learning structure again as a springboard to inquiry and research.

For your viewing: