John Wooden quote

Addressing 21st Century Skills and promoting critical thinking in a fifth grade classroom can be a tall order when faced with a deeply scripted curriculum. While project-based learning (PBL) is often seen as a catch-all approach to develop the 4-Cs (Collaboration, Communication, Critical thinking, and Creativity), the harsh reality is that fully implementing PBL is not always feasible. We as teachers are still tasked with developing those vital critical thinking skills in our students, though, so how can we respond? The same way I respond to many complex problems… with picture books!

ISTE-C Standard 1:   Visionary Leadership
Implement strategies for initiating and sustaining technology innovations and manage the change process in schools and classrooms

ISTE-C Standard 2: Teaching, Learning, and Assessment
Coach teachers in and model incorporation of research-based best practices in instructional design when planning technology-enhanced learning experiences

Guiding Question:

What can I do as a peer coach to help a fifth grade teaching team develop critical thinking skills in their students?

library shelves with picture books

Metaphors and other figurative language are great practice for higher order thinking. As an elementary librarian I’m a bit biased, but I think one of the best ways to teach concepts (simple and complex) is through picture books. It can enable students to make complex connections that may otherwise be missed with text-heavy resources only. This 5 minute video from the Teaching Channel website ( explores the idea of using a picture book for just that reason, as a touchstone text (Using a short engaging text to anchor a series of lessons on a tough concept). I feel that this video could be an effective resource to kick off a discussion with the fifth grade team.

As I continue my studies on peer coaching and the ISTE Coaching Standards, I have been reminded of the overwhelming nature of my colleagues’ work. With ISTE-C Standard 2 in mind, I met recently with a peer fifth grade teacher to explore ideas for manageable technology integration into their literacy block. An upcoming lesson is focusing on completing a reading response poster.

reading response poster

While it’s been a highly engaging activity for his students in the past, this project seems like an opportunity ripe for technology integration. One thing that has impressed me in our brief conversations has been how focusing on active listening and the use of clarifying questions shifted the tone of our interaction. I’m often seen as the “tech guy” who knows the answers to all things tech. The reality when it comes to technology is I’m a failure. I fail early and I fail often. Then I troubleshoot and find a way to make things work. And that’s what I want to help my peers to discover: to understand that failure is an option and their peers are available to support them through those inevitable moments. One of the biggest benefits of the peer coaching model is this shift from the default “expert” mode. I don’t know what technology tool(s) we’re going to use or explore, but I do know that my colleague is excited about the idea of exploring options that would allow for technology integration into the final product.

21st Century skills such as critical thinking are best developed within the framework of project based learning, something that is difficult with a primarily scripted and prescribed curriculum seemingly at odds with open-ended learning. I want this to be a meaningful and realistic process for my classroom colleagues, and my fear is that they’ll feel overwhelmed and see these activities as unfeasible add-ons rather than worthwhile additions to their instruction. I also want my peers (and students) to remember Coach Wooden’s words: “Failure is not fatal”, rather, it’s failing to adapt that causes the real problems. The more we revisit that idea and the more we keep the idea simple and digestible in bite-sized chunks (Picture Books!), the more success we’ll see in our work. 


3-5 Critical Thinking Rubric (non-CCSS) | Project Based Learning | BIE. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Edutopia. (n.d.). Search results: Critical thinking. Retrieved November 2, 2016, from

Finley, T. (2014, August 19). Critical thinking pathways | Edutopia. Retrieved from

Lange, S. (2014, June 12). Strategies to promote critical thinking in the elementary classroom – P21. Retrieved from

Mastro, V. (2014, May 20). Common core, critical thinking and Aesop’s Fables. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Ripp, P. (2015, October 3). Great Picture Books to Teach Theme. Retrieved from

Schoch, K. (2016). Teach with Picture Books. Retrieved from

Teaching Channel. (2016). Using a touchstone book to introduce tough concepts. Retrieved from

Picture book section by San Jose Library (CC BY-SA 2.0) 



[bonus resource] I came across this 30 minute documentary about using picture books to teach complex philosophy concepts to second graders. It was just too good not to include it in this resource list…

Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy through Picture Books