This routine emerged from our desire to make students’ thinking visible in a way that didn’t rely so heavily on the use of written or oral language. Having worked intensively with a number of international schools where students are often learning in a new language, teachers shared with us the need for such routines. Similarly, teachers of young children felt that the lack of language facility sometimes made it difficult for their students to adequately express their thinking. The idea of using colors, symbols, and images taps into students’ natural creativity and desire for expression. At the same time, it pushes students’ to make connections and think metaphorically.
Purpose This routine asks students to identify and distill the essence of ideas—taken from their reading, viewing, or listening—in non‐verbal ways by using a color, symbol, and image to represent the big ideas they have identified. In making these selections, students are pushed to think metaphorically. Metaphors are a major vehicle for developing our understanding of ideas as we connect something new to something we already know by drawing similarities and making comparisons. Put quite simply, a metaphor is a connection between one thing and another. This is like that because…. This idea reminds me of or makes me think of this because….
CSI can be a great way to enhance student comprehension and develop metaphorical thinking. There is no need to introduce the formal terminology of metaphors and similes, though with older students this might be discussed. Keep in mind that the connections students make are highly personal and need to be understood in terms of the individual’s explanation. For example, one student may choose black to represent an idea because to them black represents possibility and the unknown whereas another student may associate blue with the exact same idea because blue reminds him of the openness of the sky and infinite freedom and possibility.
Selecting Appropriate Content Select a rich piece of content that has a variety of interpretations and meaning. Don’t shy away from complexity, ambiguity, and nuance. There has to be something to interpret and discuss. The content might be a personal essay, a chapter from a piece of literature, a poem, a provocative speaker, radio essay, or short film. The content shouldn’t be too long or have too many competing ideas contained in it, however. Therefore a single chapter in a book or even a passage is often preferable to the whole text. Select something that you want your students to interpret and feel that their interpretations will give you insight into their understanding of the content.
Steps 1. The SetUp. After students have read a passage from a book, listened to a speaker, or viewed a video, have them think about the core ideas and make note of things that they find interesting, important, or insightful. They can do this individually or, if this is the first time introducing the routine; you might want to generate a class list of the various ideas people identified.
2. Choose a Color. Students select a color that they feel represents the core ideas they have identified in the piece of content being explored. This color is recorded and, when age appropriate, students explain and justify their choices in writing. In most cases a single color should be chosen.
3. Choose a Symbol. Students select a symbol that they feel represents the core ideas they have identified in the piece of content being explored. A symbol is a thing that stands for something else. For instance, a dove stands for peace, the = sign stands for the concept of equality. If you look at your computer dock you will see a variety of icons that stand for various programs or functions. The symbol is recorded and, when age appropriate, students explain and justify their choices in writing.
4. Choose an Image. Students select an image that they feel represents the core ideas they have identified in the piece of content being explored. An image is more like a photograph or drawing of a scene. Students need not worry about their drawing can complete a simple sketch. This sketch is recorded and, when age appropriate, students explain and justify their choices in writing.
5. Sharing the Thinking. Working with a partner or in a group, have each student share his or her color and tell why he or she made that choice. How did it connect to the passage or content the class is trying to understand? How does that color connect to the big ideas just read, heard, or seen? Repeat the sharing process until every member of the pair or group has shared his or her Color, Symbol, and Image and explained the selections.
Uses and Variations In her second grade classroom, Emma decided to use CSI as a tool to get her students to reflect on the upcoming school year. She asked them to think about what being a second grader meant to them and what color they might give “second grade.” She then asked them think of what kind of a symbol they would pick to stand for being in second grade versus being in first grade or being in third grade. How was this year going to be different? Finally she asked them to draw a picture that for them represented their hopes about second grade.
As Joan began reading a new chapter book aloud to her fifth grader’s she made the decision to try the CSI routine as a whole class but to modify it to focus just on the choice of color. Using a class list, she created a table in which each student’s name was assigned a row and twelve columns were created to correspond to the number of chapters in the book. After reading each chapter, the sheet was passed around the class and students selected a color to fill in beside their name in the column corresponding to the chapter. Once the sheet was completed a short class discussion ensued in which students were invited to explain and justify their choices to the rest of the class. The sheet was then posted on the bulletin board until it was needed again. What resulted was a patchwork display that provided a sense of the character of each chapter as well as the individuality of each student.
Assessment In students’ selection of colors, symbols and images; look for their ability to capture the essence of the stimulus from which they are working. Although this might be partially evident in their selection, it is their explanation of their choices that provide more insight. Why did a student choose that particular color or create that image? How does it connect with the big ideas of the stimulus? In helping to advance students’ thinking, you will also want to look at the quality of the metaphors they are choosing. Initially, students may make very obvious choices, such as black for sadness, a sun for happiness, or a literal drawing of a scene from the story. You’ll want to look for, and ask students to provide, metaphors that go beyond the obvious and that help us to understand the ideas on a deeper level. See Nathan Armstrong’s example in the Picture of Practice section below for an example of how this can be done.
Tips Though the routine specifies color, symbol, and then image, it is not necessary to do them in that order. Depending on the content and the individual, some may find it easier to start with the image while others may have a symbol that immediately comes to mind. Since the point of the routine is to encourage metaphorical thinking, making connections, and distilling the essence, don’t place too much emphasis on the actual drawing of the image. While younger student might enjoy this diversion, it can be a distraction from the thinking if it is allowed to become the focus of the activity. Older students might even prefer to describe their image in words rather than draw it. Students can also complete the routine quite effectively on the computer by “filling” a box using the color palette, using the “insert symbol” function as a source for symbols, and searching “Google images” to find a picture.