Category Archives: Methods and Strategies

Guided Discovery Lesson Plan: Freeze Signal

The Freeze Signal is used to communicate to students that they should suddenly stop what they are doing and pay attention to the teacher.  I consider it an important safety measure.  Personally, I use a singing bowl, but I have seen teachers use bells, wind chimes, and miniature xylophones.  Use what works for you.


What is a Guided Discovery?
It is a student-centered approach to introducing materials and routines in the classroom, developed by the folks at Responsive Classroom. According to Lynn Bechtel and Paula Denton,

The primary goal of Guided Discovery is to generate interest and excitement about classroom resources and help children explore their possible uses. Guided Discovery also provides opportunities to introduce vocabulary, assess children’s prior knowledge, and teach responsible use and care of materials.

I would add that Guided Discoveries also build community.  Students are asked to listen to each other, compliment one another, and really see and hear the work and ideas of their peers.  Using this strategy I have built compassionate, organized, and respectful classrooms.


Let the Planning Begin – Tools for Success

Procrastination finally comes to an end.
Today I begin the work of plotting out the first few days (and weeks) of school.

While the students are out shopping for school supplies (which induce panic attacks in me), I pull out my copy of The First Six Weeks of School.  The summer is coming to an end.  How many teachers would agree with this quote recently posted by Erin Klein on Pinterest?

But, no worries – I have some handy tools to help me through the process.

1) Wunderlist – This is my current favorite to-do list.  It looks nice.  It syncs to all of my devices.  I can set reminders and due dates, and I appreciate that I can share lists with folks who can co-manage lists.

2) Springpad – This site is like a Pinterest or an Evernote, just slightly different.  I’ve been collecting school materials here for quite some time. Today I will turn to my notebook, The First Days of School.

3) Pinterest – so much fun information presented in a pretty, pretty way. I have several boards that are collections of school stuff, like this one: Classrooms

4) Coffitivity – Ambient background noise that makes it feel like you are in a cafe.  Supposedly it helps boost creativity and maintain productivity.  Don’t know if that’s true, but when I listen to it I feel … more at ease.  And this way I spend less money, and I don’t have to pack up my computer when I go to the bathroom.

5) Bento – I love this beautiful product made by Filemaker.  It’s a gorgeous way of creating your own databases using self-created forms.  This is my favorite way to plan.  I can even get the plans on my iPad and use them while teaching.

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.

SOLSC: Rethinking Reflection

Conferences are over. Portfolios have gone home (for a week or two). The last two weeks were filled with groans as the Magical Minds slaved over their reflections for their portfolios. This isn’t what I want. My greatest hope as an educator is to inspire and empower life-long learners. Reflection is one of the best tools I can offer them.

How do I make reflection engaging?  I begin with reflecting on how I reflect:

  • I talk, a lot.  These conversations allow me to process events and make mental connections, which lead to insights and fresh ideas.
  • I have a persona journal, which I write in maybe once a week with my more emotional ramblings
  • I have a work journal, which holds notes from meetings, ideas for lessons, thoughts on kids, etc…
  • I have a to-do-list journal, which is primarily a record of what I have accomplished and what I hope to accomplish
  • I have a blog, where I challenge myself to match my teaching methods with what I know about best-practices.
  • I use twitter to ask questions, share thoughts and engage in digital conversation.

Ok, so I am a bit of an uber-reflector.  But, it’s authentic.  This comes from me, and my need to evaluate and improve.  Thus, this is what I am thinking about trying next time with portfolios:

  1. Digital Pieces / Works: The most amazing things my kids do cannot be captured on paper. The kind of learning that is taking place in our classroom is best caught on video, pictures and audio.  Their best works are digital.  For those who love paper, keep the paper. But, take a photo, too so that kids can reflect on it digitally.
  2. Digital Reflections: It’s tough for most of my third graders to think and write at the same time.  I want the quality of thinking to shine through, not penmanship.  Digital reflections have the potential of freeing kids from the writing, and thus focus on the thinking.
  3. Capture “I Did It” Moments on Video: Teach kids to use the built-in camera to share an “I Did It”moment.  I’m thinking about putting a toy monkey on top of the computer, and asking the kids to “tell Mr. Monkey about what you learned.”
  4. Choose the Learning, Not the Work: Right now my kids choose what to share from a pile of materials that I have returned to them (with feedback on sticky notes).  I want to turn the process around.  I dream of a weekly schedule where on Fridays the kids and I review the goals set out for the week and list what we have learned.  From this list/mind map the kids would choose a photo/video/recording that captures what they learned.
  5. Blog It: I am totally sold on kids having blogs.  Granted, I am still figuring out the best way to use them in class, but using them for reflections seems like my next experiment. With a blog, portfolios  can build gradually and authentically.  After choosing a work on Friday, kids can use the weekend to write their reflections on the blog.
  6. Online Photos and Videos: The kids and I should be constantly adding photos and videos to an online source.  I can teach the Media Specialist how to do this, and then also teach the kids how to access this media and use.
  7. Options and TIME: I can model for kids where I keep my reflections, and then give them options of how they would like to keep their own.  Finally – TIME.  This is the rarest of resources, and most valuable.

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.