Look Who’s Talking!


 Think Pair Share in action, by Maggie Daly 

                   “The person who talks the most in the classroom is the person who learns the most!”

This is a concerning thought, when you can consider how much time teachers spend talking in the classroom! How can we constructively increase students talking about their learning in the classroom? Here are four great strategies you can use in your classroom to increase productive student to student talk.


Think-pair-share is the simplest strategy to increase student participation during lessons. Ask students a question and then, rather than choose one of the waving hands, ask them each to turn and discuss their answer with a predetermined think-pair-share partner. This is a great way to encourage less than confident students who feel nervous to speak out in front of the whole class. Also vocal students now all have a chance to answer the question, so no more groans of disappointment! Finally select one or two pairs to report back their discussion to the class. I often take the opportunity to call on one of my less vocal students who, having now confirmed her answer with a friend, feels more comfortable in responding.
Teach OK!
Teach OK! is a strategy I have learned from Whole Brain Teaching. Teach your students short chunks of memorable material using exaggerated hand mime gestures to reinforce understanding. After you present the concept with students mirroring your gestures, then you ask students to turn and teach to their partner. First A’s teach B’s, then B’s teach A’s. Confident students reinforce concepts for the less confident who then consolidate their own learning by teaching in their turn. Brilliant!


Checking comprehension answers can be a nightmare when young students are unskilled at judging if their answer is sufficiently correct. It seems as if every student wants to give their answer, frequently repeating one another. Does this sound familiar?

Here is the solution! Everyone stands. You choose a volunteer to answer the comprehension question. Anyone who had the same answer should sit down. Anyone who has more to add stays standing. Repeat the process until all students are seated. This way you can deal with misconceptions, discuss the relevance of details, have listeners take notes to improve their answers and finalise the best response! 

This handy strategy comes from Joyful Learning by Alice Udvari Solner.

When teachers give students notes from the textbook, they do all the intellectual work themselves!

If you are tired of working harder than your students, here’s a strategy to shift the load. To jigsaw, divide the assigned reading into sections. Give groups of students the responsibility to read and take notes on their section and teach it back to a student from another group. Students read independently and take notes, then meet with a group of other students who have read the same topic. They discuss and determine the main ideas and eliminate extra details. Then each student is assigned to a group of students who have studied the other assigned sections. They take turns to teach each other explain the material and share their notes. Students love this activity because they take over responsibility for their own learning. They enjoy the challenge of creating their own notes but are reassured by the safety net of confirming their comprehension with the group before taking the on the responsibility of peer teaching.

As students talk through their understandings with their peers they construct and refine their mental models of concepts by a series of approximations. In allowing our students these opportunities we are apprenticing them as knowledge masters who can become architects of their own learning, as opposed to passive recipients to whom the curriculum is delivered. Using these strategies transforms a classroom into a hive of student learning!  

If you have other favorite strategies you use to increase productive student to student talk, please share!

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Bitten by the Blogging Bug?

Want to start a class blog? Here’s what I learned in the past four years of blogging with my fifth grade class. 

My blogging journey began in 2010 when I attended a presentation by Dr. Tim Tyson at the NESA conference. Teachers use blogging in many ways: some as a tool to connect with the parents of their class, others as a means to publicize their lesson materials for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers. A third class of blogs, such as award winner Linda Yollis’ 2nd grade blog, are used as a learning tool for the classroom: a place where students can reflect on their learning, respond to discussion prompts and publish their own work. I was immediately inspired by the concept of students writing for students and getting authentic feedback from their readership. Blogging quickly became an integral part of my classroom. 

My 5th grade blog is an open invitation for students to extend their educational experience beyond the four walls of the classroom as they publish stories, reflect on class activities and contribute feedback to one another through comments. With the advent of blogging in my classroom, writing has become an authentic form of communication. The blog has become the web 2.0 version of something between a cumulative yearbook, a news sheet and a class literary magazine.

If you are tempted to have a go yourself, here are some tips on getting started:

Setting up a blog is extremely simple and can be done in less than 15 minutes. My initial blog was hosted on Blogger.com. I later moved it to WordPress.com which gives you more design control. Linda Yollis has developed a very useful wiki on creating a class blog. There are three main issues to decide upon when choosing the settings for your blog: who can post, how the blog will be accessed and whether comments will appear instantly or be moderated before posting.

When setting up a blog you need to consider how you plan to allow your students to post their work. While giving them the status of contributors has the advantage of allowing students to directly publish to the blog, I have preferred to ask my 5th grade students to publish through me by emailing me their posts. This way I can request additional proofreading if necessary and deal with any technical problems, such as posting images. Another consideration is whether to have your blog on open access on the web or whether to have access by invitation only. Obviously some school districts mandate specific access terms, but having tried both, I can say from experience that restricting access to invitation only reduces student participation and makes blogging partnerships well nigh impossible, thus reducing the learning potential of the blog. Currently our 5th grade blog is on open access and I have not experienced any problems. I do get parental permission for our students to participate and am cautious not to connect real names with photographs of students. Finally, setting up the blog so that all comments are moderated by the teacher ensures that I can filter any negative comments, not that this has ever happened.

When introducing the blog at the beginning of the year, I, and the technology specialist, teach students how to access the blog through a permanent link on the class moodle course during a computer class period. We also teach email access and how to attach a document to an email, as these are essential skills to participate in the blog. Occasionally we have students who do not have easy access to technology at home and they are encouraged to use the school facilities to post and comment as equity of access to the blog is a value. Students are given a sneak preview of some highlights from the past years and then encouraged to independently explore the blog further at home.

Posting to the blog is mostly a voluntary activity done independently out of class. When I see students especially excited by a class activity, I often pass someone the class iPad and suggest they take some pictures or video. “Would anyone like to blog about this?” is often all that is needed to incite a volunteer to type up a post during break or at home and they always end their post by inviting classmates to share their opinions in comments. Following the example of previous years, students often choose to post their favorite creative writing pieces to share with their classmates, who enthusiastically respond. Longer pieces are released in installments to build the anticipation, with students writing comments begging for the next episode! Often, when grading, I will invite students to post particularly successful pieces to the blog. For some students blogging becomes a hobby and they regularly post narratives which they have written at home. Occasionally, I will post discussion questions on topics introduced during lessons or assign a blog post as a homework activity.

It is always important to spend some class time teaching the desired format for commenting. I have followed Linda Yollis’ useful guidelines on teaching commenting which can be found on her wiki. I teach students how to write their comment in the form of a short letter and I provide commenting guidelines on the About page of the blog. Correct spelling and punctuation is a requirement to pass through comment moderation. Periodically, I spend Language Arts time checking the comments held for moderation with the class and peer editing them. This has the benefit of raising consciousness and the level of concern about accuracy in conventions. We also collaboratively create a rubric for assessing comment quality as a class. 

Blogging harnesses the potential of technology in the classroom and offers a uniquely immediate relationship between author and audience. Students develop a more natural and spontaneous relationship with writing through blogging. They blog in order to be read by their peers and feedback from their peers inspires them to write more. The immediacy and social significance of peer feedback helps these young authors develop a sensitivity to their audience and to become more skilled in expressing their ideas with that audience in mind. The blog hosts writing of many different genres: from suspenseful story to the steps of a science lab. The overarching goal however is the same: clarity of communication. The blog provides a safe playground for young writers to explore, soar, run with an idea and challenge one another to greater feats. Come and visit us at the OWL blog!

Do you already have a class blog? If so, I’d love to hear how your experience compares with mine. If you are thinking of starting a blog and have more questions, I’d be happy to share more of my blogging discoveries.                What do you think? Does it sound a worthwhile endeavor?

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Teachers: Endangered or Essential?

Are teachers even going to be relevant to education in rest of the 21st century? As I introduce my 5th grade students to blogging and moodle, I sometimes wonder whether, in my desire to engage students using the power of technology, I might not be helping to guide the Trojan Horse into the teaching camp, ultimately leading to the end of our profession…
In this post. I’d like to share some worried, yet essentially optimistic, wonderings.

Looking ahead to the future, it seems self evident that education will inevitably look very different in the digital ages to come. In a world where computers are able to use data analytics based on our every click, our personal computers will come to know our interests and be able to connect us with related resources much more effectively than any teacher. Materials created by the “best” teachers will be available to all who can access technology. Kahn Academy already claims to be filling this niche. Their clear explanations can be played over again and again with no sense of embarrassment for the student or time limits on the part of the teacher.

Will the classroom be a thing of the past or will teachers still have a unique role in such a context? I would like to argue the latter! A good teacher does not just repeat and repeat the same lesson. She questions a confused student to analyze and respond to the source of misunderstanding and then reteaches it the way the child needs to learn. She subtly reads a multiplicity of non-verbal and verbal cues ranging from doubt to incomprehension, wavering focus, or incipient boredom. In response she continually orchestrates a response for the class: varying the pace, energy and level of activity to meet their needs. A good teacher explicitly scaffolds a shared context for new learning by telling stories or eliciting student experiences to connect the lesson to prior knowledge. She brings with her an in depth knowledge of this particular community of learners and uses this to facilitate a collective exploration in which students debate, discuss and spark ideas off one another.

Teachers inspire their students through example and through sharing a contagious enthusiasm for their subject. This can open whole new and unexpected areas of interest that might never be ignited by merely passionless Stumbling Upon a web page. Complex new ideas are often off-putting and a teacher who can pose and answer questions to help a student find meaning is a personal guide as the student becomes familiar with new territory. A teacher ensures structure and direction towards collective growth in the best long-term educational interests of her students. Will the students of the future be learning independently, yet meander in endless fractals, elaborating a small area of interest at the expense of wider knowledge?

Teachers engineer discussions bringing students into conflict with their preconceptions, challenging their established beliefs, and raising ethical dilemmas. They introduce students to the ambiguity of truth. They even set up group projects and activities to challenge existing social dynamics. Will a world of education based on yet more of what we “Like” already, not comfortably ensconce us all within our prejudices so we never need to venture out to associate with, or understand, others who are not “suitable” or “nice”?

A student encounters many teachers throughout their school life. Each different personality brings positive, and negative, lessons in how to relate, what it means to be human, how to work productively in society and an insight into the varied perspectives there are on the human experience. So many of us remember those teachers who took a personal interest in us. The trust that they engendered enabled them to become influential in shaping our lives. Without this essentially human interaction with our teachers will we grow up like Vulcans, rational yet unable to feel?

In the future, will access to insightful teaching become the prerogative of the privileged few or will it continue to democratize the access to knowledge and subvert the standardization of truth?

What do you think?

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Unlocking the keys to knowledge.

Why do we spend so much time evaluating how well students can answer questions, yet spend virtually no time at all teaching them how to ask them?

Questions are the keys to knowledge. The ability to frame questions to access knowledge, to think critically and exercise judgement are key intellectual tools which can adapt to any workplace. The best we can predict about the future of the youngsters we are educating today is that their future jobs are unpredictable. Learning subject content will no longer be enough when no one can be certain which content of all will be relevant in their adult lives. Surely, we need to teach students to frame powerful questions now, more than ever!

When teachers ask the questions they control the direction, the pace and the scope of what is to be covered. In setting up a new course of study teachers actually learn a lot themselves by going through the process of inquiry, research, sifting and structuring information, and pulling out the fundamental questions around which to base assessments. By this stage all the interesting creative decisions have been made and all the student is left with is to copy the notes, answer the worksheets and study this regurgitated pap for the test; basically to color in the spaces in a endeavor which is as akin to genuine intellectual activity as painting by numbers resembles creative artwork.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have done as much of this kind of teaching as the rest, but the longer I do this job the more I realize that the real learning is in the struggle, in the preparation, and that if I am to help my students and equip them with the useful skills they will need for life, I need to make them apprentices in this process, and teaching the skill of asking questions is the first step.

In my classroom we have always traditionally begun units of study in science and social studies with group brainstorming sessions, charting what we know and what we would like to learn about the new topic; what is known in the trade as a K.W.L. Chart. However, students’ questions can often be quite limited as they use a “who, what, where, why, how” approach. This year an inspirational colleague, David Nelson, introduced me to the work of The Right Question Institute, and I began to realize that I could teach my students to ask much better questions.

One important factor to writing better questions is to provide a well thought out “question focus”, which can be a keyword, a phrase or a statement. This is written on chart paper and groups of students are asked to silently generate all the questions they can around this idea for about 5 mins. The only rules are to keep on writing until the time is up and not to comment, criticize or attempt to answer others’ questions. The next step is to identify open and closed questions, and to practice changing the open questions to closed questions and vice versa.

Following this plan, we wrote questions around the question focus of a “mystery explorer” before students began their research into a specific explorer of their choice. We repeated the exercise with a “mystery element” question focus before researching specific elements. These pre-research questioning sessions allowed the students to flesh out the breadth of inquiry they would need to pursue in order to give a well rounded account of their chosen subject. Certainly I could see the depth and quality of the students’ questions improving as they became more experienced in asking thoughtful questions, and they found this activity really interesting and engaging.

What I did not do, and plan to do next year, is to go through the process of prioritizing and organizing these questions with the students and have them create the research guide sheet from their own questions. At this stage in my own learning, it is still a challenge for me to truly honor the students’ questions and allow them to authentically steer the research process. If anyone reading this has experience in this area, I would be very grateful if you would contribute a comment below.


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Pass it on!

A touch of the bizarre…an unexpected twist to the plot…the creativity of cross fertilization…all of these things make the Pass-it-on story a firm favorite for holiday writing activities in my current class.

Ting! The bell rings… A rustle of papers as they pass from hand to hand…The fascinated silence of reading, only broken by stifled giggles or gasps of amazement…The absorbed concentration as students focus intently on writing their own contribution, striving to get their ideas down before the next bell….and Ting! Here we go again! Pass it along!

This is an easy activity to set up. All it needs is a sheet of lined paper, a pencil per student and the agreement to make a story on the theme of the current holiday. I have tried it with the whole class but it is actually more satisfying to do with groups of about six. Each student writes the opening few lines of her own story on her own paper. The student who writes most slowly is the “bell master” and once she has brought her story to a suitable point, she rings the bell and all the students in the group pass their story one place to the left. They each have to read over the story they received as it has been written so far and then add to it, moving the action along. Each time they should leave the story at a cliff hanger or at a turning point for the next student to carry on. As the stories come close to closing the circle, the students need to draw the action to a end. The story returns to its initiator for a final proof reading and polishing of the joints to make sure it all makes sense. Then comes the fun of sharing the finished products, to great hilarity!

“It ‘s so unexpected! You think your story is going to go one way and it turns out completely different!”
“I thought it was funny because John put this same character in all the stories. He just kept popping up!”
“I would never have been able to write something so good on my own.”

As an exercise, this is really demanding on many levels and the students enjoy the challenge and rise to it. It requires very careful reading and response to what has been read, creative thinking and flexibility to connect their ideas on to the existing story. Students become aware of the necessity of making their meaning explicit so that the next writer can carry the story along. The joint ownership puts pressure on writers to conform to standards of legible handwriting and to use conventions to make their meaning clear. It exposes the purpose behind these conventions in a way that conveys so much more conviction than just writing for the teacher.

Reflecting on this as I now write, I’m thinking another time we do this we could focus on plot structure and ring the bell each time giving instructions for writing parts of the story: setting, protagonist, antagonist, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Would this add a new level of challenge to the activity or would it actually spoil it by adding too much structure? I’ll have to try it to find out!

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Why I Blog with my Class

IMG_1042-0.PNG Teachers are continually asking their students to write. Students respond to prompts, write personal narratives, write up science labs, share their thinking about math problems, reflect on their learning, compose poetry etc, etc. If you work in elementary education, you know as well as I do, the list seems endless. What happens to all this writing? While some is shared with classmates, getting a fleeting but authentic response in the form of audience reaction, most comes to the teacher for grading and returns to the student to subsequently languish under the desk, never to be looked at again. Blogging turns this model on its head. Now children are choosing to write for an audience, not only of their peers, but the wider world beyond. As they learn to comment and provide feedback to one another on what works in a piece of writing, they build awareness of writer’s craft. The teacher’s previously obscure obsession with accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation becomes a shared standard for publication. Comments are approved by the class and group-edited for accuracy, raising the level of concern about writing in standard English. This, of all initiatives I have ever attempted, has had the most significant impact in improving students’ use of conventions. With the advent of blogging in my classroom, writing has become a genuine form of communication. The blog has become something between a living yearbook, a news sheet and a class literary magazine. Students create posts to report on class activities or events they find significant and invite classmates to share their opinions in comments. They post their favorite creative writing pieces to share with their classmates, who enthusiastically respond. Longer pieces are released in installments to build the anticipation, with students writing comments begging for the next episode! Students respond very positively to blogging. The mother of a student who had joined the class with limited English shared with me how much it meant to her son when he received comments on his story from students he considered to be the good writers of the class and how motivated he became to write in English. Here are some responses from my students last week when I asked them what they liked about writing for our blog: “I feel special because they really liked my story and took the time to read my work and give good feedback. It’s really encouraging.” “I like it because I feel I am a real author.” “It makes me me better as a writer because the feedback helps me to improve.” “I feel really good that people enjoy my writing.” “It encourages me to write more!” Click O.W.L. to visit our blog!

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Book Recommendations Reinvented


It was just two years ago when I first experimented with a reading workshop approach to teaching reading in my fifth grade classroom. The results were astounding! Students, who had previously groaned at reading, loved reading class and complained vociferously if we lost our reading time. A hushed and holy peace descended over the classroom as they surrendered themselves to the joy of getting immersed in a book. It seemed to meet a deep psychological need. Was it for time to focus inward? Was it for a change of pace in a multitasking world in an ever more scheduled childhood? Or was it for a chance to change location and stretch out on the rug or under the shade of a tree? Is this how to engage the Engage me or Enrage me generation, as Marc Prensky describes them? Whatever the reason, it was marked how those wrung out children relaxed into absorbing and being absorbed by the books they themselves had chosen. Favorite series soon established themselves and students competed to get their hands on the next volume. Reading became “cool”.

This year I took this one step further. Since I myself like to read the books my friends recommend, or become curious to read the ones my acquaintances are all talking about, I decided to recreate this in the classroom. After 8 weeks of reading, I asked the students to select the best book they had read so far. They designed posters, added their recommendation and wrote a “hook” to attract other readers.

All these went up on the bulletin board, as normal, but did not stimulate much excitement until I thought to offer the students sticky notes to post comments on the books that they had also read as “likes”. Suddenly the board took on a new dimension of relevance in their lives. We had effectively “game-ified” the act of reading. In fact my class took this one step further and asked for a second color of sticky notes so they could also tag the books they planned to read in the coming weeks. They all continually study the board with great interest and satisfaction. The next step will be to add sticky notes showing who has the book currently or from where to borrow it !

” It’s interesting because now we know which books to try, if we’ve finished our own book and don’t know what to read next!”
” I can’t wait to read The Red Pyramid! It sounds so hooking!”
“Miss, it’s like own own Book Facebook wall! ”

Allowing students to construct their own reading journey is good constructivist practice, but introducing the dimension of social interaction and a feedback loop of comments upon work completed raises the stakes for children. Their work now has a direct purpose, a visible impact in their world. A well written recommendation, a thrilling “hook” , an eye catching design commands the interest of their peers, conveys social power. The teacher’s criteria for grading become real criteria for success in the real social world of the classroom.

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