Making Curriculum Pop

Recently, I was coaching some teachers who had shown a very high-interest clip about media constructed fear from Michael Moore's film Bowling in Columbine. The clip they showed had Moore and former USC sociology Professor Barry Glassner talking about the American "culture of fear"  as they stood on a street corner in South Central L.A.. The video is not available online transcript of their dialogue goes like this...

Prof. Barry Glassner: I love these boulevards; you just don’t get this in most of L.A.
(Professor Barry Glassner (Author, "The Culture of Fear") walking down a tree lined South Central street with Michael).

M. Moore: How come when I turn on the 11 o’clock news all I hear is “Tonight in South Central.” Tonight in South Central there was a drive by shooting. This, that, or whatever – they’re not making that up, are they?
Prof. Barry Glassner: No, they’re not making it up, but they’re choosing what they’re covering. If you turn on the TV, look at the news, what are you going to hear about? Dangerous black guys, right? Unnamed black guy who is accused of some crime.
M. Moore: Right.
Prof. Barry Glassner: You’re going to see black guys doing bad things, or hear stories about black guys doing bad things. And we’ve heard this our whole lives.
News coverage clips from various U.S. cities

News Audio (1): The suspect is a black male in his twenties, we are told he has a large afro, side burns, and he was wearing a silver chain at the time.
News Audio (2): The suspect is African-American, police believe…suspect… black man, black man.

M. Moore: Susan Smith drowns her two children; she tells her people that a black guy did it. Stole the car and stole the kids. And everyone at first bought it.
Prof. Barry Glassner: The anonymous, urban… which usually means black male, comes by and does this, is the excuse for all kinds of things. 
M. Moore: Charles Stewart, the lawyer in Boston, kills his pregnant wife, says a black guy did it. Everybody buys it.

With this intro you can imagine that the sequence they showed was at times shocking and sarcastic. By the end the clip Moore's argument becomes clear (I'll let you see the film if you have not). After screening this sequence teachers tried to run a discussion and they said it fell a bit flat. The students thought the clip was interesting - end of discussion. 

I asked the teachers what they did before, during and after the clip in terms of creating flexible structures for student engagement. They had done some pre-viewing work about fear but it did not seem to do the trick for a variety of reasons.

This led me to suggest that these teachers use one of my favorite tools that I had never written up, called "Three 4 Thinking." I usually hand out a bunch of Post-Its and ask that each student have at least three on their desk during a class. As we're exploring a text (could be audio, visual, print or a class discussion) I would pause and ask students to do a "Three 4 Thinking" Post-It. On their Post-It they need to write down a question, quote or idea about the text. In the PDF attached below I have finally written up the "Three 4 Thinking" tool a Learning Experience Organizer (aka LEO©).


Sometimes, to mix it up I would ask students to write an Ah-Ha, Connection or ? on their Post-It.

Here are the explanations of each prompt.

In the classic literacy coach sense you can check for understandings (the "s" is very important here) before, during and after any text. I'm quick to remind folks (and the core standards are echoing this theme) is that tools like this are even more important for "texts" like science labs or math problems.


This is certainly not rocket science. The tool has always worked well for me, I think, because the prompts are differentiated in the sense that that students choose the question to answer and the question is open ended (content, process and product are all subject to great variation). It also lets you get at what I like to call "the data that matters." You go "under the hood" of student brains to see how they are processing content and class discussion. After each thinking prompt they can pair share, share with Quadrant Partners or you can have students share what they wrote with the whole group. Anyway you cut it EVERY student is given individualized processing time as they "write to learn."

I always like NOT sharing with a larger group until each students do 3 to 4 of these Post-Its/squares on the attached LEO©. Why you ask? Because when students are done, you can ask them to cut the squares out and lay them all on the floor (those of you who have read my Connect the Minds (CTM) article probably know by know that I think the floor is more magical than DISNEY). From there students can have a kinesthetic whole group discussion where they affinity sort the squares into themes. Because there are so many voices on the floor every student gets a chance to participate and again, we move away from this type of class...


toward this type of class...
As you've probably gathered, the "Three 4 Thinking" LEO© is in line with the obsession that drives a many of my playlsit posts. I'm really interested in creating "flexible structures" that teachers can use at almost any grade level and discipline - including college.

My mother, a middle school teacher and my first teaching mentor, got me started on this path as she is the O.G. - no, not the "Original Gangsta" but the "Original Graphic Organizer." Once she showed me how to think about organizing teaching in terms of these universal cognitive challenges - how to process, uncover, explore, explain and connect content I haven't stopped creating LEOs© that can help students and teachers learn together. Yeah Mom, you're the best - happy belated Mother's Day :)


Since I typed up this LEO© two weeks ago I've used it in 5 different settings:
1. With the high school literature teachers I mentioned above
2. With college professors
3. At a high school staff development meeting
4. With a group of high school literature and science teachers
5. At a workshop for administrators

I now keep 30 copies of this PDF in my backback along with my Post-It stash incase I need to make something engaging and active on the fly.

You can download the full "Three 4 Thinking" LEO© below this post. Hopefully, you'll find this LEO© as useful as I have and you'll take a hot minute to share how and when you used it below.

As always, any feedback (including info on typos above) is always appreciated!

Good Vibes,



Ed. Aug. 1, 2011 - Great photo of the "Three 4 Thinking" in action from from MC POPPER Kathleen Cumberland in Damascus, Maryland. Kathleen used the "Three 4 Thinking" PDF right away and sent a note saying, "I used the Three 4 Thinking activity from your playlist today with my fifth graders. We are reading the Atherton Trilogy by Patrick Carmen. The kids loved the activity. Thanks for sharing this one!"

Check out this excellent photo and get a load of the blond student who is right out of central casting - it certainly looks like they are doing a lot of great work.


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Awesome! This reminds me of how I use post-it notes as exit tickets. Students get a sticky note and reflect on the class with 5 minutes left in the class period (I teach high school), and on the way out, they post it to the whiteboard (with ot without names) The next class that enters the room always stops to read the notes and it gets them excited about what's going to happen in their class that day! I swear it motivates them to pay closer attention because they want to leave their notes for the next incoming class. 


I like the little icons you use (especially since I teach graphic novels!) which provide specific ways for students to reflect but also offers choice.


I LOVE your little contrasting images of traditional classroom versus "new" flexible structures. Makes me think about how to get students to think "outside the box" when they are literally trapped in boxes (square, linear classrooms) all day!!!

(Technology allows one way "out" of the classroom box, but literally mashing up the classroom space is important too. I love interactive whiteboards, but I'd rather have students using Chrome books so we can continue to work from various spaces within our "box." Know where I can get some $ for 30 Chrome Books?)


But I digress...thanks for more useful classroom tools that allow more PLAY and divergent thinking!




Hi Maureen, tnx for all the feedback - I actually wrote above (and later deleted) that these are in many ways souped up exit slips!

Thanks for sharing the settings in which you used this strategy.  I particularly endorse the idea of having participants share their writing with a partner or in small groups first, then being invited to share with whole group.  Shy learners often are deep thinkers, but reluctant to speak to large groups.  Once the shy-deep thinker is affirmed by partner or group mates, s/he usually feels more confident and willing to speak out.

The idea of asking participants to organize their response in a pattern that emerges can be a powerful way for them to see what others are thinking and how differently members of the class respond to the same prompt/reading/problem.  The participants will see that different is not necessarily wrong.  More important for me, when I've opened up to the possibility that student responses can be correct if different, I've learned.  What a bonus we teachers have the daily privilege of learning as we teach.



Anna, yes, always a huge difference between teachers who look for the right answer vs. those interested in answerS!  As Alfie Kohn recently Tweeted:

@alfiekohn Alfie Kohn

Better teachers tend to ask fewer questions that have only 1 right answer. Plus, their students are doing most of the asking

You are fabulous, Ryan, as is your mom.


Thanks Jan - I'll uhhh, be sure to tell my self that every morning in the mirror - lol.

Going to use this for my summer class...LOVE it!!


K to the M - thanks for taking the time to write - so glad you finding it usable!  Hope all is groovy in NY!
I love it.  Any strategy I can use to get students actively thinking is great.



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