As a new teacher, I proudly printed out pre-made posters for the prompts of Depth and Complexity and stuck them up on a wall in my classroom. But, here’s the problem: printing (or buying) pre-made posters robbed my students of a chance to own the Depth and Complexity tools. They also just became part of the background. Kids just didn’t really notice all of the pre-made stuff hanging on the walls.
What I learned to do later was involve my students in the process of introducing Depth and Complexity and the associated icons. And part of that is that they make their own posters for the thinking tools. I also wanted these posters to do more than just show an icon and, instead, emphasize the kind of thinking that my students were doing with those icons.
Using A “Scholar’s Cafe” Model
I’m going to use a model here that we called “Scholar’s Cafe” in my district, but I’ve never seen anyone else ever talk about it before! Basically, with a Scholar’s Cafe, you:
- set up several stations around your class where groups can gather
- each station gets a big piece of paper (we always used butcher paper)
- each paper has a prompt in the middle.
- you rotate groups around to each station and students respond to the prompt by writing on the butcher paper.
The end result is that every kid has written at least one thought on every paper and you can hang up all of this great student thinking on your walls. The papers are beautifully chaotic!
1. Gather Some Big Pieces of Paper
Depending on how much wall space you want to devote to depth and complexity posters, you can use butcher paper, poster boards, or just construction paper. Whatever you choose, put one piece of paper at each station spread out around the classroom. These stations can be a big table, a counter space, or even the floor. You just want lots of kids to be able to gather around the paper. Oh, and you’ll need markers or pens.
2. Pick Your Icons and a Topic
There will be one paper per depth and complexity prompt you’re working with. No need to do this with all of the icons at once. Pick just a few icons at a time.
We’re going to have students rotate through each station and write out examples of that prompt on the paper at that table. I’d give them a different topic for each round.
Let’s say we’re using 🏛️ Big Idea, 🌻 Details, 🚦 Rules, and ⚖️ Ethics at four stations. The first group will need to draw an icon and label it since the paper is currently blank.
3. First Topic and Icon
Now I tell my students their first topic.
Ok class, we’re going to think of examples of the tool of depth and complexity at your table. So this table is working with big ideas, you all are using details, you’re rules, and this table is ethics. Our first topic is… sports!
Since they’re all sitting around one piece of paper, let them know that’s there’s no up or down on their paper. They can write however is comfortable for their position.
4. Scaffold Scaffold Scaffold
Now, some kids won’t get what’s happening, so I make sure to scaffold the instructions:
- “Everyone, tell one person at your table what you’re supposed to do next.”
- After they do that, I call on one person at each group, “What are you doing?”
- Then I’d say, “Raise your hand if you TOTALLY UNDERSTAND THE TASK”.
Once I’m convinced that no one’s going to say, “Wait what are we doing?” I’d say:
Ok, we have 90 seconds on the timer. GO GO GO!
So now, students at the Big Idea table are jotting down 🏛️overall summaries of a sport, kids at the details table are writing down 🌻essential bits of information about various sports, and so on.
Ding ding ding!
Ok, 90 seconds are up. We’re going to rotate like a clock. Everybody point to the next table you’re going to. Ok, now rotate!
Notice that I also scaffold the rotating so we don’t have kids crashing into each other. Yes, I taught 12-year-olds at a gifted magnet school. Yes, they still needed this kind of scaffolding. Yes, even adults at workshops benefit from this kind of scaffolding!
5. Station Two: New Icon and New Topic
Then I’d announce, “Now, you’re going to use the new thinking tool at your new station and the topic is now… movies! 90 more seconds and… GO!” Everyone should be writing down big ideas, or details, or rules, or ethics related to this new topic of movies.
Notice that now, each icon’s paper has examples from sports and from movies. We’re naturally gathering ideas from across disciplines.
6. Keep Rotating with New Topics
Then we’d rotate again and I’d announce a new topic. Maybe school, vehicles, food, insects, buildings, teachers, famous people, etc. Keep repeating this until students have visited each prompt.
In the end, everyone wrote about each depth and complexity prompt using a different topic.
7. Wander and Read
Then, I’d then give them time to wander at their own pace and see what people wrote down for each station. Maybe five minutes or so.
Kids may pile up a bit, but the point here is just for them to see other kids’ thoughts. Expect some funny/weird/unexpected examples to draw lots of attention.
8. Quick Whole Group Sharing
Now’s a chance for a whole group debrief.
I’d ask for students to share examples they noticed that really stood out or made them think in a different way. I’d also share things that I noticed. Perhaps thinking that I’d like to correct or maybe things that went really well.
9. Independent Work
Now, I always want to make sure I’m climbing Bloom’s Taxonomy when using Depth and Complexity. So far, we’ve been low-level: merely writing down examples of the prompts. That’s fine since this is an introduction. But I do want to end with something that uses higher-level thinking.
Everyone goes back to their seats and I’d tell them, “Ok, now thinking about all of these tools and topics, what was the most surprising connection that you made? Perhaps a connection between a movie and a sport? Some new thought that you had.”
I might have them write this down on a notecard or a post-it and I’d use that as an exit ticket for recess.
Display Their Thinking
Now, I have the big paper they made in groups that I can display. And I also have individual notecards or post-its that I can put up. Not only does this show off the depth and complexity thinking tools, but, more importantly, this shows off my students’ thinking about depth and complexity.
And that’s something no pre-designed poster can possibly accomplish!
The bonus: I kid you not, kids would pop in at recess to show these posters to their friends from other classes. My students would explain the ideas and in-jokes and weird examples to their parents at back-to-school night. Visitors would stand in front of these class-made posters forever, cocking their heads to read all of the writing.
These class-developed posters were a point of pride for my students!
So, regarding printable depth and complexity posters, here’s how I changed my mind:
- I’ve stopped emphasizing professionally designed icons
- I sketch icons by hand as I taught – modeling that these are thinking tools, not art projects.
- I use emoji when it’s a digital document
- I let my students make their own Depth and Complexity posters that showed off their thinking and personalities
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