Category Archives: thinking

Summer School: Day 6

As we read—quickly—through Number the Stars, we preview each chapter by looking at a list of comprehension questions. One of the questions for Chapter 8 asks students to give (and, presumably, support) their opinion:

Why, when his sister and nieces were visiting, would Uncle Henrik spend the whole night on his boat?

After reading the chapter, the students attempted to answer the question. Their answers were varied, ranging from fanciful (but amusing) to thoughtful. The former included:

So he won’t be in a house with all ladies.

He probably doesn’t want to be irritated.

Because he was scared of them and he could not let his sister push him around.

Because he don’t get along with his sister and his nieces don’t like Henrik.

Among the thoughtful responses were these:

So he can get things ready for taking Ellen to Sweden, and get there for a safety [sic] trip.

The soldiers might steal his boat.

…so he could keep an eye out to see if it is safe to go to Sweden…

Hearing the sea slap against the side of the boat.

I think it’s worth returning to the question tomorrow and asking the students to point to evidence in the text that supports their position. (“Specifics!” I can hear my high school English teacher saying. “Give me specifics!”)

How else are they going to learn to think?

Summer School: Day 4

One of our state’s academic standards for 6th-grade science expects students to be able to create a list of instructions that someone else can follow in carrying out a procedure. Because this 14-day summer school session is a multi-disciplinary unit including language arts, math, science and social studies, I try to relate every lesson to the novel Number the Stars.

“You’re one of the Danish Resistance fighters,” I told my students yesterday. “You need to blow up a bridge. In ten steps, write instructions that someone else can follow for blowing up that bridge in case you get killed before you can do it.”

“Why do we want to blow up a bridge?” one student asked.

“Because the Germans are using it to move men and military equipment, and you don’t want to make things easy for the enemy. I’ll give you the last step on your list: It’s to blow up the bridge. You’re responsible for the first nine steps. Oh, and use dynamite as your explosive. Any other questions?”

“How do you spell dynamite?”

I wrote the word on the board and the kids began to scribble their instructions. One of the steps on several of the students’ lists was “Test the dynamite.” Arrgh!

For a first attempt at writing instructions, however, I didn’t want to be too critical. No use discouraging them. I want them to write, write, write!

Today, they continued working at mastering the standard. On a handout, I had written:

[The German invaders rationed food in Denmark.] Annemarie went to the kitchen and opened the door to the cupboard where the potatoes were kept. Every night, now, it seemed, they had potatoes for dinner. And very little else. (Number the Stars, p.22)


Create a list of instructions that Annemarie can follow to prepare a tasty dish of potatoes for the Johansens’ evening meal.

The students’ instructions for preparing potatoes were somewhat more explicit than their instructions for blowing up a bridge, although I did worry a bit about the student who wrote that after putting the potatoes on the stove to cook, I should walk away and come back in a while when the potatoes were done. Um, how long is “a while”? And won’t the potatoes be overdone—or even burned to a crisp—if I leave them sizzling in a greasy skillet while I go play video games? (Video games? During World War II?)

They’ll try writing more instructions next week—perhaps for gutting a fish (Annemarie’s Uncle Henrik is a fisherman); or how to draw a Star of David (a symbol that figures prominently in the story); or even how to make applesauce (a treat that Annemarie’s mother makes at the farm).

Most of my students don’t know how to think. Writing lists of step-by-step instructions is one way to get them to practice the art of thinking.