Category Archives: Assessments

3rd Grade Inventors Solve Problems Creatively

It all began with a group brainstorming session.  We sat around tables with sticky notes.  Inspired by, the Klutz Book of Brilliant Ridiculous Inventions, we agreed to a few basic rules:

  • all ideas are welcome
  • more is better (go for quantity not quality)
  • sugar is helpful to maintain good spirits and energy
  • sticky notes + permanent markers = easy to write & read

Our first two sessions we spent thinking of all the things that nag and bug us in our daily lives.

  • brushing our teeth when we’re tired
  • not able to stay up late and read/write
  • when our moms yell at us
  • annoying sibling…

Once we had spent a significant amount of mental power on problems, we switched our brains to think up solutions. 
Once the Magical Minds had chosen one solution/invention to pursue, their task was to create a diagram.  The goal was to create an image that would explain the different parts and pieces of their invention.

Nathan researching the size of different electronic devices for his "Huge Wallet"


The last week of our unit on Inventions was spent building models/prototypes of our inventions.  We used materials that were available to us, cardboard, fabric, old bottles, cushions and toys.    The final products were astoundingly creative.  Most impressive were the number of adjustments and changes each child made to his or her invention.  There were many challenges, and like true inventors, the Magical Minds dealt with each one as part of the process.  In the end, we had a magical collection of inventions.
Back Row: Henry’s Pencil Lamp, Josephine’s Learning Ball, Alexandra’s Pencil Ball, Klara’s Brother BeGone Spray, Viola’s Pencil Lamp.
Front Row: Sophie’s Pencil Pillow, Nathan’s Huge Wallet.
For more information about these inventions and more, check out their Invention Book.

Differentiated Instruction: A Child Centered Classroom

“A differentiated classroom is a
place where the teacher proactively
plans and carries out varied
approaches to content, process, and
product in anticipation of and
response to student differences in
readiness, interest, and learning
needs.” - Carol Ann Tomlinson

The Magical Minds are different. Each one is beautifully unique. They have different interests, different skill levels, different learning styles, different needs.

How do I know this? I talk with the kids, alot. There are small chats scattered across the day. There are reading, writing and math conferences. Sometimes we have special tea dates, which are one-on-one meetings (with tea) designed to assess and address the needs of individual kids. I take notes. I take lots of notes.

Unit Expectations and Anecdotal Notes

When I plan, and when I instruct, I think about these differences.  I think about what each of my kids needs to grow and feel successful.  As Angela Maiers put it, I think “how can I advance THIS learner?”

I begin with choice.  The Magical Minds choose their books, their writing projects, research topics, as well as their means of presentation.  The result = kids who are engaged and interested in the work they do.  It belongs to them.  It stems from them.  Part of my job is to help the third graders make good choices.  I provide the reflection time, the self-assessment tools and the conversations they need to understand their own interests, learning styles and needs.

Cultivating Self-Awareness

I teach independence. I carefully build (and adjust) the structure, routines and expectations that empower these third graders to work with focus, dedication and confidence.  Eventually they don’t need me (well, at least not all the time), and I am free to roam the classroom with my camera and my notes.

Independent Learners

While the majority of the class is solving a math problem, writing stories or researching an inquiry question, I stop to meet with individuals and/or small groups.  During these conferences I provide instruction that is specifically designed for the child/group in front of me.


Differentiated Instruction: TAI Math

The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is and assisting in the learning process. – Hall, Strangman, and Meyer, “Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation

Choice is at the heart of my differentiated classroom.  There are times, however, when I limit the amount of choice the kids have.  A good example is in TAI Math, which is a math program I use twice a week to supplement my concept-based instruction.  TAI Math focuses on operations and solidifying basic facts.  It looks like a workbook.

It may not sound differentiated, but every child is working on different material based on their skill level.  At the beginning of the year, I assessed which skills the Magical Minds needed help on, and assigned them the appropriate unit in TAI Math.  Supported by a well-defined procedure, the Magical Minds progress through the units at their own pace, self-assessing at every step of the way.

Because the third graders can work independently at TAI Math, I spend my time moving around the room, supporting students when they encounter new and confusing concepts/operations.  I carry with me a set of place-value blocks, using them to guide students through challenging material.

Building Understanding with Place-Value Blocks

Sometimes my instruction is geared to a small group of students.  For example,  yesterday I noticed three kids were struggling with the same concept, and I invited them to work with me at our round table.  Not only did we use manipulatives to explore the troublesome topic, we talked about it and drew pictures.  As the kids explained their thinking to one another, I saw their eyes light up with understanding.

Literature Circles: Notes, Goals & Feedback

In a previous post, Literature Circles Revisited, I discussed some techniques my colleagues and I began using to improve the quality of conversations in our cross-grade Literature Circles.

After putting some new expectations in place, each Lower School teacher was appointed to observe and help a different group.  I worked with a group of boys who were reading Frindle by  Andrew Clements. Here is what I learned in the last few weeks:

  • notes matter, but only use them if necessary
  • set goals specific to the group
  • stay out of it, but get involved

Notes Matter: The kids who brought notes were more focused, had more meaningful things to say and were more engaged in the conversation.  They got stuck, however, in this “I share mine, then  you share yours” routine.  One child would go through their notes, wait for a short time for responses and then move on, even when the thought had obviously not been flushed out.  This brings me to the next point…


Set Goals Specific to the Group: Each group needs a different challenge.  The Frindle group needed help with letting their conversation flow.  That first week I gave them a challenge: “let your thoughts just hang there.”  I explained I wanted them to share and idea, then give LOTS of time for people to respond.  The next week…they did that.  BUT, they were still sharing notes one kid at a time.  I gave them a new challenge: “put your notes down.”  I had noticed that at the beginning of their session they were able to talk a long time about what they liked and didn’t like about the reading – with no notes. I shared my observation with them, “You obviously have a lot to say about the book. It seems like the only time you would need your notes is when you run out of things to say.”  Next week, they did exactly this.

Stay Out of It, But Get Involved: While the kids were talking away about their book, I sat nearby writing notes and notes and notes.  I broke them down into three columns:

  • Positives
  • Challenges
  • “Conversational Language”

When there were 5-10 minutes left before the bell their conversation often started to dwindle, which was my cue to jump in.  I shared what they did well and what I thought was difficult for them.  We talked about the next week’s challenge, and how to improve their Literature Circle.  Finally, I applauded the kids for what I call “conversational language.”  These are sentence openers or phrases that encouraged a flowing conversation (a big part of the goal).  I am collecting them as I go, hoping to make a poster of exemplars.

All in all, we are growing and getting better.  I still see room for growth, but that’s what we do in education – we learn.  In a week the kids will change books and groups, and new challenges will arise.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.  Stay tuned.