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Written by Brie Tompkins - Kindergarten/First Grade Educator

Remember back to when you were in school.

Why did your teachers ask questions?

Is your answer, “to find out what I knew?”

Did your teachers fish for the one and only “right” answer? Did the conversation end when they got the answer they wanted? What if you had a divergent idea? Did you feel vulnerable sharing it? Was there a risk of the teacher brushing you aside because your idea differed from his or her own? What happened when you were “wrong?” Did teachers wonder about your thinking, your reasoning, your perspectives?

I hope they did. But I imagine, for many of you, these questions remind you of a room with limited space for the swirl of beautiful ideas.

At Sycamore School, we ask questions to find out what kids think, how they think, and why they change their minds.

We encourage space, noise, ideas, strategies, and processes. As educators, rather than fishing for the one and only “right” fish, we want to net the entire underwater ecosystem. And, we don’t try to do it alone. We rely on our students to build on each others’ ideas, ask questions of each other, debate with respect, and offer strategies to solve problems that others can try out.

We give them space and time to think.

Thinking matters. Connections matter. Listening, responding, observations, questions, wonderings - they all matter. These are building blocks for the innovative minds of the future.

So, how do we teach our youngest students the value of their ideas? We find out what they are thinking by embodying several transformative mindsets. We celebrate the ways our students live and learn together and...we make the learning fun!

Our foundational mindsets at Sycamore:


In my Kinder-1st Grade classroom, my little green notebook is just as essential as the library of books and games. I record my students thinking - regularly, meticulously, patiently, while they watch me, waiting, listening...and thinking some more. By slowing down the sharing process, I encourage others to think, make connections, and speak up! And I find out how to shape my teaching!

Whether kids are strategizing, observing, or teaming up to make the next move, they learn as they play! We encourage them to share their thoughts about games.

“I like playing games because of the challenge. The point of games is for it to not be too easy and for it to be fun.” -HP

“Games are fun because maybe the other person knows it better than you, so you can learn from them.” -JH

I encourage my students to recognize when they make mistakes. When they say, “I made a mistake,” I watch to see how they manage the moment. Usually, I say, “Great. Hmm…I wonder what you can do about it.” Again, thinking is power. We embrace our mistakes, and think critically and creatively to solve problems.

First graders shared their wisdom about mistakes as a way to encourage creativity, and to help their new classmates embrace a growth mindset.

“Mistakes are when you do something wrong, like a splat of paint gets on your paper...but if that happens, you could just make it into a puppy.” -AW

“You can turn your mistake upside down.” -LB

“You may feel nervous when you make a mistake, but you can turn it into something new.” - LK

“Mistakes are when you’re trying to make something, but it goes a different way.” - JH

“It may feel like a mistake when it turns out different than you imagined.” -BES

Can you think of the school subject where teachers were most likely searching for one answer?

We challenge you to think differently about mathematics. At Sycamore, mathematical thinking is more important than sums and dividends. We celebrate the ways students visualize differently, and support them to build language to share their thinking strategies with others. Articulating their thinking leads to ah-ha moments, self-correction, and opportunities to explore new ways of solving problems. Sharing thinking is much more interesting than sharing answers.

Sycamore students are regularly invited to notice and wonder. A wise first grader explained that “noticing is seeing something and thinking about it. Wondering is thinking about something with a question in your mind.” -JH

We engage students’ imagination and help them share their wild ideas when we say:

“Make sure everyone can hear what you have to say.

Hmm...I wonder how we can figure it out.

We all have different ideas and perspectives.

We make great mistakes when we try.

What do you notice?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What strategies did you use?

What is going on in your picture?

How did you collaborate with each other?

What other ways can you solve that problem?

What predictions do you have?

What do you wonder?

What could we do differently next time?”

Our students make observations about everything from a box of cupcakes, to another student’s art, to the facial expressions of a character in a story. Their wonderings are powerful because they lead to connected ideas, which lead to deeper learning AND more thinking!.

Imagine if you could go back to when you were five or six years old, and feel on a daily basis that the adults in your world cared deeply about your thinking. Imagine the trust and courage you could build.

We are raising courageous kids, who think, who share, and whose ideas matter. Starting with our youngest students, we are devoted to learning with and from each other.

To the parents and educators reading this blog, rather than ask children, “are you listening?,” try wondering what your child is thinking about instead. If you ask, you may find out what they really THINK.


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