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r i t e n o u r


Thinkers October 2009

Habits of Mind Systems thinkers step back to examine the dynamics of the whole system and the interrelationships among its parts. They observe how elements within systems change over time generating patterns and trends.

Lucille Van Alstine’s first-hour sophomore English class has come alive. Lackadaisical students who saw literature only as a means of achieving a grade now read and talk about short stories with understanding and passion. Disruptive students who rarely completed an assignment now finish stories and participate in discussions. A systems thinking tool has made the difference. Lucille Van Alstine Most students were used to Ritnour High School memorizing main characters, English Teacher plot, and setting as identified by the textbook and repeating them on a test. They didn’t care about what they were reading, nor did they understand that stories are carefully constructed by the author to evoke an emotional response . . . a response that enables the reader to connect to the story. Lucille wanted her students to make this emotional connection, but she knew it would be difficult for them to understand such abstract concepts unless she could find a concrete, visual way to represent the arch of the story. Behavior-over-time graphs gave her the visual tool she needed. continued on opposite side 4

Tools A behavior-over-time graph is a basic line graph that shows the trend, pattern, or change of a variable over time. It is a simple tool that can help people focus on patterns of change over time rather than on isolated events. The horizontal axis is always labeled in units of time or change in time (e.g. beginning, middle, and end of a story). It must have defined beginning and ending points. The vertical axis identifies the variable being graphed. Variables can be concrete (population or temperature) or abstract (love, or stress). They must have a defined scale which can be numeric or descriptive (e.g. low to high). For more information on behavior-overtime graphs and their use in classroom settings visit the Waters foundation Website: (

She began (bravely) by charting her own efforts to diet. Then she had students create individual behavior-over-time graphs. Next she moved to The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss. The class worked together to chart key events in The Sneetches on a behavior-over-time graph. On the horizontal axis, they marked time. On the vertical axis, they measured the degree of conflict in the story. They agreed that at the beginning

got frustrated and gave up. As a result, he rarely completed an assignment. “Now,” he said “I have a tool that helps me visualize the problem. I can break it down, see a picture, and put it in real life terms. I know why something happens, and that way I read the whole story. I most definitely will use this tool on my own.” Two other students told me they used behavior-over-time graphs to understand books they had at


“It totally works! For some people words are just words. They need a visual clue to help them understand how words work.” of the story the level of conflict was low. As the inequalities between The Sneetches with stars and those without became apparent, conflict increased. Later, as the economic status of the two groups equalized, tension lowered. Now students had a clear, visual representation of the way Dr. Seuss constructed the story. They understood that the book was more than a group of isolated parts and the racial and class implications of the story became clear. Jesse spoke for most of his classmates when he said, “It totally works! For some people words are just words. They need a visual clue to help them understand how words work.” Ray said he wasn’t a very good reader. He said he usually

home. Steven dug out his old Dr. Seuss books and charted The Cat in the Hat. He discovered that while The Sneetches is about conflict, The Cat in the Hat is about chaos. Ryan said he’s started reading a lot more since they’ve been using behaviorover-time graphs in class. He’s become particularly interested in reading Edgar Allen Poe because he can now “understand what Poe was thinking and how he developed his stories.” He said before he started using these graphs he “never asked the why question,” and so he never made connections between the story and what was happening in real life. Steven seemed to sum up the others’ reactions when he said, “It made it more 3D.”

Lucille has now moved to using behavior-over-time graphs to help students understand short stories in the sophomore English curriculum. She’s thrilled that her students are connecting with literature in new and deeper ways, but she also knows they need to master the content in the curriculum. So on the horizontal axis of their graphs under the original designations of beginning, middle, and end she wrote the terms used in the textbook to describe the arch of the story, exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Behavior-over-time graphs transfer these story elements into a meaningful whole rather than a list of desperate parts to be memorized and forgotten. Systems thinking ideas and tools are powerful agents for transforming organizations, schools, and classrooms. If you’re interested in learning more, contact Lucille Van Alstine at Ritnour High School, check out the Waters Foundation website (, or talk to a Ritenour administrator about opportunities to learn more about systems thinking in schools.


your story Ritenour Systems Thinkers is produced by Barbara Kohm. If you have a story to share, email Barbara at, call 314-721-1627, or talk to your principal or Mary Scheetz.

Ritenour Systems Thinkers Oct 2009  

a newsletter for Ritenour school in St. Louis Missouri focusing on educational applications of systems thinking ideas and tools

Ritenour Systems Thinkers Oct 2009  

a newsletter for Ritenour school in St. Louis Missouri focusing on educational applications of systems thinking ideas and tools