“The Rainbow Fish” is a beautiful tale: A shimmering fish gives away its glittery scales one by one to befriend others. It’s often seen as a parable about sharing and selfishness.

But one kid at Torrey Pines Elementary pointed out in an essay that there was something fishy about it.

“The adult writers did not realize that they were teaching kids an immoral way to make friends,” the fifth grader wrote of “The Rainbow Fish” and two other books. The child said giving someone a gift the way the fish did might strengthen a bond of friendship, but couldn’t actually create one.

Such sophisticated arguments might not seem so surprising at Torrey Pines, perched on all-but-oceanfront real estate in La Jolla. But across town in the refugee hub of City Heights, Joyner Elementary is doing just the same thing with classes of poor children still mastering English.

These two dramatically different schools are prodding kids to think deeper and analyze texts, instead of just understanding the words. They are trying to take critical thinking — a skill usually associated with college seminars and Plato — all the way down to elementary school and “The Rainbow Fish.”

The San Diego Unified school board has enshrined critical thinking as one of its reform goals, principles rooted in the idea that schools can come up with their own ways to improve themselves. But San Diego Unified is also setting out ideals that it wants schools to strive for, like fostering deeper thinking.

It mirrors a national push to deepen lessons so that kids learn to synthesize and evaluate information, crafting their own arguments and debunking others. Deputy Superintendent Nellie Meyer called it “an expansion of the definition of success beyond the standardized cookie-cutter model.”

“We’re preparing them for a world where they can easily have access to information via Google,” said Michelle Nieto, a literacy teacher who helps Torrey Pines. “They need to know what to do with all that information. How do you make meaning of it?”

Joyner and Torrey Pines aren’t testing out these reforms because the school board said so. They’ve used these strategies for years, working with two educators, Nieto and Michelle Montali, who they dub “the Michelles.” Nieto used to work at Joyner; both now work part-time at Torrey Pines.

Their consulting business brings the same training to teachers from Sacramento County to Coronado. At Torrey Pines, it was a quest to challenge kids who came to kindergarten already reading. Joyner wanted to ensure English learners didn’t decode words without understanding.

What is new is that the school district has started urging other schools to visit and see what they’re doing. That means that Joyner and Torrey Pines could become a blueprint for how to ramp up critical thinking in San Diego Unified, an appealing idea that can be slippery for educators and parents to actually pin down — and sometimes difficult to juggle with the demands of state tests.

“Every school thinks they’re teaching critical thinking,” Joyner Principal Gilbert Gutierrez said. “The hard part is defining it. What does it look like in kindergarten?”

Here is what it looks like at Joyner. Instead of just asking kids to identify characters or answer questions to show they understood a story, teachers draw swooping black arcs on posters to follow the drama of a story — conflict, climax and resolution — and help kids tease out big ideas from all the details.

Before, “we didn’t discuss the ideas that come from these stories,” said Wendy Gillespie, who teaches second grade at Torrey Pines. “I don’t know that we even really talked about them except on an emotional level. ‘Wasn’t Cinderella brave? Wasn’t that sister mean? How did it make you feel?’ “

Teachers spend less time talking and telling and more time listening and coaxing. They push students to go beyond a simple word like “mad” to sort out more complicated ideas like “frustrated” or “controlling.” Even kindergartners are urged to find the main idea in a story. And while teachers help kids name the abstract ideas they’re describing, teachers don’t come up with the ideas themselves.

“The teacher is just holding the pen,” said Noemi Vizcarra, a resource teacher at Joyner.

First graders follow one arc from a story about a lightning bug that includes the detail, “Leo will keep trying to make a light and not give up.” A bright arrow veers off to declare he was “determined.” The idea is to take kids beyond the tiny details to see the concepts they illustrate, from heroism to resilience.

In one class at Joyner, third graders chewed the ends of their pencils, trying to dissect a short story. “I think the turning point was when her stepmom knew how she felt,” one boy offered up. The six children conferred about how to describe the way the little girl in the story felt. Someone said “sad.”

“We can’t just use happy or sad!” another boy insisted. Vizcarra has even heard older kids reminding each other to move beyond literal thinking to inference or interpretation.

When they get to fifth grade, kids at these two schools take the next step beyond understanding the themes and message in a story to debating whether they agree and lining up evidence. At Torrey Pines, fifth graders pen complex reports like “Urban Sprawl: a Multifaceted Controversy.”

“I didn’t do anything like that until I was in high school or college!” Torrey Pines Principal Jim Solo exclaimed.

While both schools have fared well on state tests, outscoring schools with similar challenges or advantages, both complain the tests don’t measure some of the advanced skills they’re teaching. Fifth-grade teachers at Joyner hunkered down together with sample questions for the looming state test.

“No. 2 is ‘What’s the main problem?’ They’ll nail that. It’s conflict,” said teacher Tim Marking as they paged through the questions. Another question that asked students to suss out a theme made him scoff. “That’s an advanced question? Are you joking? For our school, that’s not advanced.”

But other questions could throw their kids a curveball. Marking groaned over a question that asked students why a writer had mentioned creaking stairs in a story. The right answer was the house had held several generations. Teachers feared kids would instead answer the house needed to be fixed.

“It feels like they’re trying to trip people up,” Vizcarra lamented. “We’ve been teaching them to think all along. Now it’s about, ‘How do we look past all these little tricks on the test?’ “

Those worries might be eased if the tests change. A national push to deepen thinking has led states to sign up for new, shared standards: the skills that kids should master each year. While California is often lauded for having unusually good standards, the new list would be shorter, allowing schools to delve deeper than they do now. That, in turn, will lead to new tests to measure deeper skills.

“For a long time we’ve believed you just can’t measure this stuff,” said Michael Kamil, an education professor at Stanford University. “Well, unless you set forth the goal, you never get there.”

That state shift is still years away. As testing season swirled around them, teachers at Joyner and Torrey Pines said it was a battle to keep focusing on critical thinking. In the days leading up to the test, principals sometimes struggled to find examples of it in classes as teachers turned to test prep.

“We have a million measures of fluency. We have a million measures of spelling,” Montali said. “We need a measure of their thinking.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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