Critical Thinking Model Answers English Karen

We are always on the hunt to share practices and strategies that promote student learning. Who better to ask than some of Tennessee’s top performing teachers? The department’s director of teacher training and support, Karen Babbs Hollett, sat down with Tennessee teachers to pick their brains. In this post, Karen shares tips from four Tennessee educators on how to build a space that promotes thinking and questioning.  

By Karen Babbs Hollett

We spent time talking with some of the state’s most highly-effective teachers to learn more about what specific practices lead to student success in their classrooms. Through our conversations, some key trends emerged: these teachers tracked students’ progress, they celebrated student success, and they provided targeted academic feedback. Something else that was consistent across high-flying teachers was their approach to supporting students in thinking critically about content. Here, those teachers share practical tips for building a classroom full of critical thinkers.

Tip #1: Ask Good Questions, and Let Students Work at Them

Karen Vogelsang, 2014 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, listens in on a small group discussion.

Karen Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher in Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s current Teacher of the Year, starts by asking frequent questions: “Rigor in my classroom boils down to a lot of questioning. Why is it like that? What would happen if the character did this? What if the ending was different? I’m constantly asking them questions, taking them from where they are and pushing them to apply their learning in a different way.”

Vogelsang adds that it’s important for students to ask questions too, “We don’t have to give them all the answers. And we can make that fun, it can be, ‘Ooh, that’s a really interesting question. I wonder if we’ll find that answer out’. Leave it open.” Vogelsang and her students record their unanswered questions, and as they move through the unit and encounter content, “I will say ‘Makia had a question about such and such. Are we at a point where we can answer that right now?’” Students then revisit and discuss the question together.

Beth Myers, a second grade teacher in Marion County, makes reflection a central part of her classroom practice. At the beginning of a lesson, Myers has her students write questions about the topic in their journals. Then, as part of the lesson closing, her students revisit those questions and try to answer them on their own, using the evidence they gathered during the lesson.

Alicia Kahrs, a high school science teacher in Cleveland City Schools, chooses a Socratic approach to questioning: “I answer questions by asking another question. I typically don’t dole out answers. I put it back on them: ‘Did you think about this? What about this?’ Ultimately, I want them finding the answer.”

Tip #2: Structures: Scaffold and Support

Karen displays thinking routines in her fourth-grade Memphis classroom.

A pivotal moment for fourth-grade teacher Karen Vogelsang was when she attended Project Zero training at Harvard University and learned about Making Thinking Visible, a program that she says “has totally changed my instruction and how I approach questioning and thinking.” A key component of Visible Thinking is Thinking Routines. Thinking Routines consist of a series of questions that lead students through the steps of critical thinking. “One of the most effective thinking routines is called ‘What makes you say that?’ It pushes students to say more,” Vogelsang explains. In ELA, she uses the “Circle of Viewpoints” routine to push her students to consider characters’ diverse perspectives. In science, she uses “See, Think, Wonder,” where students look at a picture, take quiet thinking time, then share what they wonder about the image. You can access a list of Thinking Routines here.

Similar to Thinking Routines, another structure that supports student thinking and questioning is Accountable Talk. Accountable Talk is a method of dialogue that promotes active listening, collaboration, precise explanation, and elaboration. Kahrs is a fan. “I use a lot of Accountable Talk in high school,” she says.

“I start by modeling it to students. Then there comes a point when I say, ‘What kinds of things do you hear me saying on a frequent basis?’ They’ll pick it out, and I’ll say, ‘That’s how you need to be talking to one another and thinking.’

Kahrs writes accountable talk phrases on cards and places them on desks so that students have that reminder in front of them. For a list of Accountable Talk moves, click here.

Shannon Streett, Middle Tennessee Teacher of the Year, prompts students to use thoughtful questions and statements instead of only “I don’t know.”

Shannon Streett, a sixth grade ELA teacher in Cannon County and the 2014 Teacher of the Year for Middle Tennessee, created a structure to help her middle school students stay engaged in discussion even when they’re not sure of an answer. Together, they created a poster called ‘What to say instead of I don’t know’. Questions on the poster include: “Can you ask the question another way?” and “May I reread the text?”

Streett also recommends spending time in oral brainstorming and teaching students how to verbally articulate their reasoning: “In pushing students to think critically, the biggest thing I have learned is that if they can’t articulate their thoughts in a discussion, it will never translate to paper and pen.”

Second-grade teacher Beth Myers emphasizes modeling as an important structure for building students’ thinking skills. “I allow them to see me ask myself questions out loud and to brainstorm ideas I have. If they see you doing it, they’ll be more comfortable doing it themselves.” Myers takes this one step further – in addition to her own modeling, she positions students as teachers and models as well. She uses a strategy from Whole Brain Teaching where students reteach content to one another, “They come up with all kinds of ways to reiterate the content so they understand it. They take responsibility for the learning.”

Tip #3: Create a Classroom Culture that Values Thinking

Regardless of the strategies teachers use, critical thinking won’t take hold unless the culture of the classroom supports it. Karen Vogelsang describes her fourth-grade classroom as, “a tight community of learners where thoughts and questions are valued. I don’t hear things like ‘that was a dumb question’. When students feel like their thoughts and wonders are valued, they feel safe to ask whatever questions they have.”

Streett describes her sixth-grade classroom in a similar way, “It’s okay to not have the correct answer. It’s okay to have to work toward a correct answer, and multiple perspectives are valued as long as you are backing up reasoning with evidence. We’re not here to be right, we are here to learn.”

Streett also recommends that when teachers praise students, they praise the thinking, not the right answer: “We should shift to valuing the thinking process rather than the product.”

Students in Vogelsang’s classroom work together to solve a problem.

Vogelsang challenges teachers to “release ownership of the classroom to the students.” Giving students time to ask questions, discuss, and wonder may be hard – “You feel like you need to have control and keep things moving.” But, she says, “It has to be their classroom, not ours.” Myers challenges teachers to “allow students to be their own free thinkers.” She clarified, “I don’t mean a disorganized classroom, I mean allowing them to explore other possibilities. We embrace both the agreement and the disagreement. I tell students that disagreement is great because it means that we’ve explored other avenues of the content. We’ve given ourselves permission to think differently.”

Streett acknowledges that a shift in this direction may be hard for both teachers and students – “If you let them discuss a question before you deliver the content, you have ideas all over the place. On the surface, it may not look like a traditional classroom; it can be loud and confusing.” But, Streett maintains that it’s worth it: “It’s also really exciting. It leads to a change in student learning. It leads to productive struggle. It’s adventurous learning.”

We know there are thousands of Tennessee teachers with insightful advice and best practices to share. We would love to hear from you! What strategies and best practices have helped you build a classroom of critical thinkers? We can’t wait to hear from you.

Karen Vogelsang also shared some of the documents she uses with her thinking routines (from step 2 above). Click the title to download the resource: 3-2-1 Bridge; Compass Points; Color, Symbol, Image; I Used to Think…But Now I Think; Hear, Think, Wonder.


Teaching refugees: Karen students

Karen refugee students: Cultural background profiles

Many educators teaching diverse students report that they do not receive enough cultural background information on their students. If you are teaching refugee students, it is important to be aware of newcomers’ backgrounds.  The information below is meant to provide an overview of key highlights, so you develop culturally responsive teaching strategies that are in tune with your students’ unique learning styles.

Burma (Myanmar) has suffered civil war, political oppression and ethnic conflict since the 1950s. Burma includes over 100 different ethnic minority groups, with some of the most well-known being the Burman, Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Shan, Rohinyan, and Mon. The Karen live in Karen state, and thousands are in refugee camps in Thailand.

Sgaw Karen, Pwo Karen, Burmese, and English

Teaching in the Classroom
Karen people have traditionally placed a high value on Western-style education. In 1962, private schools were outlawed and since then, due to lack of funding, schools in Karen areas have been unable to provide a high standard of education. Since 1997, ethnic groups have tried to provide basic education to displaced communities.

In a basic Karen school, lessons include three languages (Karen, English, and Burmese); math and general science; and social studies. Students also receive classes in hygiene and civics, domestic science, and gardening.

Most Karen refugees were able to attend school in camp, so many speak some basic English and have some background in math and science. However, they are likely to struggle with critical thinking concepts, writing, and American history. Karen culture values land and resources like water, so Karen students may excel at units on ecology.

Students are expected to show respect to teachers by listening without interrupting, disagreeing or making eye contact. If a Karen student knows you are saying something incorrect, they will probably not disagree with you because it would embarrass you as the expert. Karen students may show respect by lowering their heads when walking in front of others, passing items with two hands, and crossing their arms in front of them.

It is considered rude to step over another individual. Be careful to walk around students and ask other classmates to do the same. Students are not used to being asked questions directly or in class. It’s a good idea to re-ask questions that have not been answered or think of other ways for students to participate.

Karen refugees tend to prize communal rather than individual values and may at first do better in group activities rather than competitive activities or entrepreneurial activities. Karen students may feel uncomfortable with praise or may have a hard time talking about their individual skills and strengths.

Family/School Engagement
In Karen culture, people are expected to decline initial invitations. If you hope for a Karen family to join an event, you may need to ask repeatedly. Saying “no” is typically a way to show you are being modest. In reality, many Karen will not actually want to refuse a request or invitation from a teacher because that would be considered rude. Instead, they would probably reply indirectly but then not attend the event.

Karen tend to address one another by titles, such as “Auntie” or “Uncle.” You can show respect for parents by addressing them this way. Even if parents do not speak English, you can find ways to engage them using their traditional knowledge. For example, many Karen value the land and environment and would be good volunteers to help lead school recycling or environmental efforts. They also value their heritage. It is important to keep in mind that many refugees do not know how to drive or lack access to a car, so transportation to school events will be a challenge.

Culture, Gender and Family
Elders are highly respected in Karen culture. Karen youth show their respect by walking behind elders. Teachers, parents and religious leaders are typically viewed very highly by Karen individuals. Community is also very important within Karen culture, and community members are often thought of as extended family members. Around 70% of Karen are Buddhist or Animist. The remaining 30% are Christian.

Families generally eat meals together, but often in silence rather than as a time for conversation. Food is often viewed as a way to help cure diseases or sickness. If you are working with your school counselor to support a student, you may suggest including this and asking the family what foods they may need to support their student.

Additional Resources




HEALTH Refugee Health Profile 2_3_16 FINAL DGMQ.pdf/view?searchterm=burma



Share Your Ideas

If you have comments or additional information or ideas to share on teaching Karen students, please email:

Take our Course for Educators

If you would like more training on how to educate refugee and immigrant students, please consider enrolling in our course, Educating Refugee and Immigrant Students: An Online Course for Teachers.

Print this Information as a PDF

You can download and print this Karen learner profile as a PDF and keep it as a resource in your classroom.

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