Category Archives: Classroom Climate

Hopes and Dreams

It began with the question, “Who are you?”  We made self-portraits with colored pencils.  Adding pictures of the things we like, such as board games and experiments.

Then I asked, “What are you good at?” We discovered we have animators, inventors, builders, authors, artists and scientists in our class.

On the following day, I asked the Magical Minds to consider something they would like to get better at, and we talked about the idea of making goals.  On kites, we wrote and illustrated our hopes and dreams for this academic year.


Some of us are hoping to be better at games, while some of us want to build inventions.  Others look forward to working on computers, and others are excited about reading.

By sharing our aspirations and goals, we cultivate a community where everyone’s dreams matter.  In the spirit of protecting each other’s hopes and dreams, I introduced the topic of rules.  We brainstormed a rough list of rules that might be helpful, which we put aside for a couple of days.  I call this composting.  Sometimes you just need to sleep on it.  Two days later I rewrote the rough list of rules on small index cards and spread them out on the carpet.  We discussed why we have rules:

  1. So that everyone has fun
  2. So that everyone can learn and grow

Together, the Magical Minds and I brainstormed another dozen possible rules. Then, I brought to the carpet three plastic circles.  I asked the kids to group the rules into categories.  Working together, we agreed on three basic rules for our classroom:

  1. We are safe.
  2. We turn our brains on.
  3. We are respectful.

To show that we understand and agree with the rules, we all signed our names:


Today the Magical Rules appeared above our Accomplishments Board, reminding us how we can best support each other’s hopes and dreams.

Independent Study Leads to Stop Motion Film

Independent Study time is a favorite among the Magical Minds and myself. It is a time when the third graders can work on projects of their choice. We have created a list of activities they can choose from, but most of the third graders spend their independent study time writing. They write comics, stories, poems and diary entries. When we are the middle of an inquiry project, the kids will often choose to use that time to finish up keynotes, popplets, prezis, etc…

But, every once in a while something completely unexpected happens. The other day Nathan asked to use the camera to make a stop motion film. I hesitated, but then agreed. “But, I am busy helping the others finish up their projects. Do you think you will be alright on your own?” He nodded and bounced off with confidence.

Fifteen minutes later, he came back with this… Well, not exactly. I added the music and uploaded it, but he shot the stills. Amazing! I don’t know how he figured out the basic idea of how to make a stop motion film…but he did.

If you give a kid a camera, you might just get this:

Teaching Kids How to Ask Good Questions

If you don’t ask the right questions, every answer seems wrong.
– Ani DiFranco

There are no stupid questions.  But, there are definitely some questions that are better than others.

Questions have power.  A well crafted question hunts for answers at all times of the day.  A carefully composed question keeps working even when you are asleep.  A good question can’t be answered on the first page of search results.  A good question fosters wonder, curiosity, admiration and beauty.

I like to think that I was born asking good questions.  NOPE.  I was taught how. I was trained by experts – my parents.  Today, I bring many of my parents’ strategies into the classroom, as well as the wisdom of educators such as John Barell.

Here is a list of my Five favorite techniques:

1.  Respond to questions with questions: “Explain your thinking.”
Child: How do I do this?
Ms. M: How do you think?

Child: Is this right?
Ms. M: Why do you think it’s right? Explain your thinking.

2. Play Twenty Questions:
In our class we have a Wonder Box.  Each week one child is chosen to secretly put one thing inside the box.  The other children must try to guess what is inside.  This provides practice in listening to the questions and answers given by peers.  It is also an opportunity to exercise asking broad questions, such as, “Is it manmade?” or, “Is it something you use at school?”

3. Group Questions
The Magical Minds ask very specific questions. When we started a unit on inventions, they were wondering about specific inventors, “Who made the first wheel?” “Who made the most inventions?” When I asked them to group their questions together (a skill we have been working on all year), they began to see the bigger question: “Who are some important inventors?”

4. Think Solutions
Kids can easily get wrapped up in tattling.  My response, “I wonder if there’s a solution for that.” We use the “Comment Box” to hold kid issues, which we talk about as a group, working together to solve problems.  There are also many daily interactions which serve as opportunities for creative problem solving. And, slowly the Magical Minds are learning to find the question in the middle of a problem.

5. Record Random Questions
This year I started a “Google Questions” sheet.  It sits by our computer and acts like a depository for the strange and odd questions that pop up in life.  For example, “What is the difference between a male and female cow?”  These questions are then answered by the Librarian.  The Librarian is one of our classroom jobs, and it is their responsibility to take care of the classroom books AND research the Google Questions.

What techniques are you using in your classroom?  

How do you cultivate curiosity?

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.

Cultivating A Reflective Practice

This week we celebrated growth and learning through student-led conferences.  In third grade we have slowly collected papers and photographs to put into our portfolios.  This is a three step process for the Magical Minds:

  1. Portfolio File: This is a collection of EVERYTHING we have done.  When I return papers, the kids put them into their file to be sorted through later.

  2. Fancy Portfolio: Every other week, the Magical Minds sit down with their portfolio file and choose their favorite works to put in their fancy portfolio.
  3. Reflection: Most of our reflections take place during the week leading up to student-led conferences.  We take time to look back over our work, explaining the learning and sharing successes.

    Reflecting Together

I enjoy watching the children’s reflective practice grow and improve over time. It’s important to me and the PYP for kids to develop a reflective practice, because of the power it has to change who we are and what we do.  As an educator, I am constantly reviewing my lessons, where the Magical Minds are in their learning, and what I need to do to be the best teacher I can be.  It is through reflection that we discover how to strive to be better people.  It is through reflection that we explore how to better the world around us.

Although I think humans are, by nature, reflective creatures, I believe it is also a skill that can be nurtured and cultivated.  How many times have you asked your child, “So, what did you do today?”  Only to hear, “I don’t know.”  For a child, this probably means, I am to tired to think about it. Reflecting is hard work for the third grade brain.  This is why I work to build a routine of reflecting.  Everyday (well, most days) I ask the Magical Minds to answer a question about their day.  For example, “How were you reflective today?”  or “What did you learn today?”  They are expected to write their answers on sticky notes or in a small notebook.  And, their “ticket out of class” is to explain their answer.


End of the Day Reflections

It’s not the most fun thing we do in third grade, but reflecting is one of the most important skills we build as lifelong learners.

Third Grade Media Specialists

A Media Specialist Hard at Work

The classroom jobs in third grade change each week, allowing each child a chance to experience a variety of responsibilities. The Media Specialist is, however, a coveted and beloved job.

What is a Media Specialist? (as defined by Public Broadcasting Service, PBS)

In schools, the term covers a broad spectrum of educational roles. Can mean the person who operates audio-visual equipment, the librarian, a teacher with broad knowledge of media resources and the communication process, or one who helps other teachers locate an array of resources.

What is media? (as defined by

In our classroom the Media Specialist focuses on three different means of communication:

  • music
  • photographs
  • web resources

Lately we have spent quite a lot of time on the computer, and I’ve discovered that the Media Specialist is also a web-navigator. I can see how over time this job is growing and shifting to look more like the PBS definition.

In the beginning I modeled most of the computer skills: opening programs, entering keywords into a Google search, manipulating mind maps, etc… The kids are, however, picking up on these skills and it is mind boggling how quickly they become masters. I am excited to expand this job description in the classroom, broadening the kids’ knowledge of media resources and empowering them to “locate an array of resources.”


Just one of the smiley faces caught on camera by a Media Specialist

Although having control over the mouse is a fabulous responsibility, do you know what is ever better? Having control over the camera!!! There are few things more fun to this lot than capturing and sharing photos of each other. For me, this quickly feels like silly-mania. Each flash sets off another round of giggles. But, this Friday the Magical Minds taught me the value of all those silly-sounding moments. When asked to create a set of quality instructions to explain their light and sound experiments, almost every kid needed to use the camera to complete their project. Not once did I have to stop and explain how to use the camera. Every picture you will see in their projects (post pending) was taken by a third grader, and they are all in focus.