Objectives and Inquiry


I don’t think directed, structured instruction has to look as if it is directed and structured. I believe in inquiry-based learning, learning where a problem is put out there and children dissect, investigate, observe, manipulate, explore, construct, test, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and create the answer. This is a highly structured teaching method with the teacher carefully setting up situations that will allow the students to learn through discovery. In this type of learning, the students develop a deep understanding of the problem and its solution. They won’t forget what they’ve learned because they worked hard to figure it out. Because they figured it out for themselves, they get it. They will use it in any place they come across it because they really understand it. They have looked at it from a lot of different angles so they recognize it when they see it in any of its various forms.

Frequently I forget about the advantages of inquiry-based instruction. It takes a lot of time, but the students work harder, are more focused, and remember what they learn. Sometimes I get caught up in the frenzy of checking off objectives, testing standards, moving through content, and what I end up with is pretty much junk. Recently I spent the day developing materials about Maritime signal flags. Each flag represents an idea as well as a letter of the alphabet. Some children really get into codes and I was playing with the flags from that perspective, viewing the materials as center tasks that could be done during the student’s free time. At the end of the day, as I was reflecting on what I had written, the first thought that hit me was, “What objectives are taught through these materials?” I was aghast as I couldn’t think of any. I had spent the whole day working on materials that didn’t teach any objectives! Then I realized that I was once again caught in the trap of the tyranny of educational expectations! There may not have been any objectives I could think of, but there was a lot of good thinking involved in what I was making.  Here are some skills brought into play by these materials:

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

Ole’ Bloom would have been happy with what I’d made.  I had once again become so focused on covering lists of objectives that I lost sight of the whole process of thinking, exploring, analyzing, evaluating and creating.

Lists of objectives are very necessary to make sure I don’t wander off into never-never land, a place I really love to be. They provide the structure I need to stay focused on my objective: to help children learn their objectives. But children need time to use the skills they are learning to learn new things on their own—things that are interesting, useful, and important to people different from them. Or even things that aren’t particularly useful or important to anyone else, but are simply interesting and engaging. That’s what centers are for, I think—to allow students to investigate more on their own; kind of a learner’s workshop sort of space. I have to, and WANT to, keep both ideas in the forefront as I develop thematic materials: objectives and standards, presented through inquiry-based materials. It’s easy to get lost in one or the other. Sometimes I have to step back and get my perspective and thinking straight.  How about you?


Posted in Inquiry Based Learning, Instructional Planning, Learning, Thinking About Teaching | Leave a comment

Playful Learning with Classroom Museums


Classroom museums and research centers provide materials to set up classroom centers that allow students to study themes through exploration, manipulation, and inquiry, based on their curiosity and interests. Abstract concepts become more accessible by presenting them as concrete activities, objects, and projects.

The idea behind these materials is that children learn by playing. If we want our students to make sense of the material we present to them, we must make sure we present it in a way that makes sense to a child’s brain! Concepts of math, science, social studies, economics, government, and history are very abstract, and often unrelated to the lives of our students. Expecting them to learn enough to understand what we are trying to teach them by lectures or textbooks alone is unreasonable, and goes against all we know about how children learn. Asking them to simply memorize enough facts to pass a test is an enormous waste of time in this “Information Age.”

School reform advocates have been talking about this for years, now–decades, really! There is a lot of talk about 21st century education, but a decade and a half into the time period shows little has changed in American classrooms. Employers complain about a lack of problem solving skill, difficulty in participating as a part of a team, and basic communication errors, in their work force. Colleges complain students can’t write or do math. Parents complain there are no alternatives to college preparation programs, to provide occupational training for students who need it. Students complain there is nothing relevant to learn. Teachers complain there is not enough time for any of it! For thirty years, educators have offered numerous suggestions to attack these problems separately, yet nothing seems to have helped.

I think it’s time to go “Back to the Future”! Maria Montessori said a hundred years ago, “Play is the work of the child.” I suggest presenting information in such a way that children are immersed in the subject. Present it in such a way that students NEED to learn in order to accomplish something that they WANT to do. Rather than lecturing about government, set up a classroom government. Rather than lecturing about history, recreate an event. Rather than lecturing about ancient rock art, create it. Let children play to learn.

If we set up conditions where children can research, analyze, develop, and create, for a REAL purpose, both individually, in small groups, and as a whole class, creating a final product to be shared outside of their own classroom, it seems that many of the complaints would be addressed. Children would have to read, discuss, research, write, create, develop, analyze, evaluate, revise, produce, critique, and communicate in a variety of ways, with different sets of people, as an individual and as a team. Children would no longer be passive recipients of teacher direction, but would discover, as they search for solutions to their “playful” problems, how to be productive members of society! Problem solving is a foundation for this type of instruction—real problem solving done by students looking for real solutions to their needs. Today, more than ever before, we have the tools available in our schools to make this approach possible, and even easy. Students create learning for themselves and others. Children can create materials for other children (and adults) to use.

“Maps, Murals, and Mini Museums” and “Research Centers” based on thematic units will give you a start on setting up and using thematic museums. Each year that you use these materials, your students will add to your collection of artifacts, wall displays, and print materials. Your classroom will become a rich laboratory for discovery, inquiry based learning, as your students gain knowledge and experience in life! Your students will begin to learn the skills they’ll use as adults in your kindergarten classroom. (Well, they ALREADY do this in kindergarten–it maybe more appropriate to say in your fifth grade classroom—just to pick one out of the air!)

This is such a no brainer to me. I’ve been ranting about it my whole teaching life. I don’t understand, truly, why more people don’t engage in “playful” teaching. There is a mountain of research to support it. It always ranks right up there with best practices, but still, it’s hard to find. Materials can take a lot of time to create initially, but once you make them, they’ll last your whole teaching career. In fact, each year, students will make even better artifacts than you started with and your classroom will look like a real exploratorium in no time! Behavior problems go away, as long as you teach your students how you want them to use the materials, and then stick to it. Test scores rise. Children want to come to school. Newspapers visit your classroom to see what’s going on! There’s just no down side, that I have ever found.

If you are interested in finding simulation games, or historical recreation activities, Interact is the best source I’ve ever found. They’ve been around for more than 30 years and have games for just about everything you’ll ever need to teach. Check ’em out!  They are truly engaging materials!

Here are some materials I’ve created to help teachers set up little museums in their own classrooms.  Hope you’ll find something to “get you goin’!”

I’m nearing the end of a unit containing materials for a Research Center on the Mayflower.  Although it’s not yet ready for sale, you can find out more here.  The following items are available now.

Rainforest                        Ancient Rock Art                   Natural Resources of Colonial America

Posted in Instructional Planning, Integrated Instruction, Learning, Thematic Teaching, Thinking About Teaching | 3 Comments

Kids as Teachers


I am always amazed at how proficient children are when they are given half a chance. Recently I was working with a group of first graders of varying achievement levels in reading. While I was working with one small group, another small group was working independently with the reading games. I like to monthly themed wall cards (gingerbread wall cards) to hang on my classroom wall which I call wall cards. I keep the active cards on the wall and the old cards in a basket on the floor. I looked up to see some of the month’s cards in a pile on the floor and hanging on the wall were all the cards for the year that had little words with e, i, and y at the end of them (me, my, he, hi, she, shy, be, by, why, etc.). D and N were working with great focus and I watched for a bit to see what they were doing. I had noticed that fearful little D had a lot of trouble with these words, confusing the sounds for the three letters, pretty much randomly guessing whenever they turned up, even in context, but I hadn’t done anything about it yet. N said, “Okay, D. You know the name of this letter, right?”

“Yes, it’s e.”

“Right. Now all these little words that end in e say that name, like me, she, we. Get it? Do you hear it say e?”

“Oh, yeah! Let me try it. I’ll get all the words that end in e. You tell me if I’m right.”

And she was. She then wanted to try the y words, but N said, “No, not yet. Try the -i words first.”

After they had sorted out all the words that had long es and is in them, then they tackled the -y words. Ultimately, it was those words they worked on for the rest of the game and the next day, starting with just a couple and adding one at a time until D could say them all consistently. She didn’t have any trouble with those little words after that and she was so PLEASED with how quickly she had learned that her attitude and focus were significantly better for several days.  I don’t think she would have learned that quickly if she had been working with me!

Way to go, N! …and you too, D.

Here are some printable Flashcard Games just for you!  Merry Christmas!

Posted in Literacy Activities, Play, Thinking About Teaching | Leave a comment

Christmas Stockings


Here’s a simple, fun, and educational  activity for your kiddos.  Students learn some of the common design elements of the Pennsylvania Dutch style, and use the information to create a cut-and-paste Christmas stocking.  Directions, tracers, and background information are all included.  The materials come at 2 levels–grades 2-3, and grades 4-6.  I hope you and your students will enjoy this fun and educational project!

Merry Christmas, all!

Posted in Art Themes, Christmas, Colonial America, Holidays, How To..., Integrated Instruction, Project Based Learning, Social Studies Themes, Thematic Teaching | 2 Comments

The Power of REAL

I learned about the power that REAL learning can have on motivating students during my Master’s Degree training and later experiences with my own students.

I started my Master’s Degree in Special Education after I had been teaching elementary school for three years. I enjoyed working with children who had trouble learning as well as those with “attitudes” because as a student I had been bored out of my mind from second grade on. The problem was I didn’t really know what to do with them. My teacher training classes had given me lots of strategies to use with those who will learn anyway, but many of those techniques didn’t work with the students I was concerned about. I decided to study Learning Disabilities because it would give me the broadest look at a variety of factors inhibiting learning. I had no intention of teaching special education—I just needed more strategies for the classroom.

I went back to school with a list of things I needed to learn, all of which were centered around reading and writing instruction, and how to teach math to those who weren’t getting it. Language development quickly became the focus of my studies. Although most of the courses I took were required classes, I was relatively free to focus my time on the areas I was most interested in. I was in school for a specific reason and I was learning for a specific audience of students. I had been teaching long enough to know what I needed to know. I became a voracious learner, another new experience for me. The only difference between this educational experience and the boring ones I was much more familiar with was that now I was learning for a REAL purpose and I was given some choice in what I studied.

In the mid-eighties I was working with a class of third and fourth graders for the first time. We were studying the native people of California and I was having a difficult time finding material about any of the nations and tribes that lived here before the 1700s (or after for that matter). The current textbook only had about 5 pages and it was so general it didn’t really say anything. I was able to find a huge scholarly work that had been written in the 1930s, but it was out of print and I wasn’t able to locate a copy either through the library, museums, or book stores. The only book I found was a 1952 social studies textbook on a shelf at a thrift store. It had fifty pages on native Californians. I duplicated those pages to have enough for each student and explained the problem to them. The children understood my difficulty right away (we had completed several other thematic units prior to this one, so they understood my need for trade books.) They responded like the great people they were: “Let’s find out all we can about the people from our area and then we’ll write our own books. Somebody has to!” The power of REAL had struck for the first time in my classroom. Their efforts instigated ever-increasing efforts in succeeding classes.

That first class put together one class book made up of a lot of 1-3 paragraph reports on the native people of the local area.  We found the information in the “ancient” textbook, and by visiting local historical sites.  We invited knowledgeable people to come speak to our class and answer questions.


The next class (another 3/4 combination), using the book from the first class, made their own book composed of 5-11 paragraph reports, stories, myths, legends, and poems about the native people of the local area. They also made a classroom museum display of artifacts that they researched and created, photographing them for book illustrations.

The last class, using the materials and artifacts made by the first two classes, researched, wrote, directed, and produced a historical fiction movie about the native people of Southern California who were visited by a time-traveling relative and a native person from Northern California.

All because there really weren’t any materials available for children to study native people of California.

Since then a lot of materials have been developed and are easy to find; one of my favorites is Whispers from the First Californians: A Story of California’s First People (Student’s ed).

But I’m really glad I couldn’t find what I was looking for at the time. I learned the power of REAL.

Originally posted on another website on 11/20/2010.

Posted in Classroom Publishing, Instructional Planning, Integrated Instruction, Language Arts, Learning, Native Americans, Project Based Learning, Real Life Projects, Social Studies Themes, Special Education, Thematic Teaching, Thinking About Teaching, Writing | Leave a comment

Choice in Student Motivation


I have always found learning to be intensely motivating in itself; the problem comes when students are learning something different from what I want them to learn. They are always learning—it’s what their brains are designed for—but unfortunately they can figure out lots of ways to get around what I truly want them to learn. Long story short, in my 30+ years of teaching I learned that if I want students to learn deeply, retentively, and without a great deal of behavioral issues, and be willing to stretch themselves, I had to give them a stake in their learning. Choice was my greatest fertilizer in the classroom garden.

There are many ways to offer students choice. I started out superficially, and ended up digging deeply. Here is a brief outline of my growth as a teacher as I learned to trust students with their own choices.

  1. I had a daily “choosing” time for preschoolers to “play” at the classroom centers while I worked with small groups. I did the same thing when I taught kindergarten, although my team partners did not at first approve. Soon, they were doing the same thing. (preschool-kindergarten)
  2. I set up weekly centers, and allowed students to choose when to complete each one, as long as they finished by Friday. (First-second graders.)
  3. I expanded academic centers with very focused objectives, and allowed students to choose which centers to do. Gradually the students began to adapt my activities to their needs, and we became “center collaborators” as they not only worked at the centers, but made materials to add to them, and asked me for specific activities. (First-second graders.)  This was very wonderful!
  4. When students began to ask me if they could do things I didn’t think they were capable of, I started to say yes. (First-second graders.) I found out they knew more about their capabilities than I did!
  5. I began to use Writer’s Workshop, and made sure students chose their own writing projects, focusing my instruction during that period on brief mini lessons, and individual conferences. I also had a “regular” writing period, where I chose the assignments and the “bigger” objectives.
  6. I allowed students (grades 1-5) to choose activities to do after their “work” was finished. They could create their own projects, if they wished, which they did. They could use any materials in the classroom, and bring items from home, if they so chose.
  7. I set up “Challenge Groups” for gifted students who worked in small groups with classroom volunteers. Students could sign up for the group (gifted or not), but in order to stay in it, they had to keep up with all their classwork, and it had to be done well. (I will write a detailed post on Challenge Groups later.) (grades 2-5)
  8. I assessed the students in my class (a grade 4/5 combination) to identify math skills that I needed to teach. I chose 3 skills, explained each skill group to the class, and allowed the students to choose which group to join. Here is where my life as a teacher really began to radically change! Some students signed up for all three groups, and I don’t just mean the over achievers! Some students signed up for groups where I thought they were already proficient. When I asked them why they chose that group, they gave very rational reasons, such as, “I know how to do it, but I don’t understand it.” “I know what to do, but I’m really slow.” “I don’t know how to use it in my life.” I’m not making these up! When I asked them how they were going to manage completing the work for 2 or 3 groups, when they ordinarily wouldn’t even complete it for one group, they assured me they could handle it. And they did! The groups lasted for 3 weeks, I tested them, they achieved, and from then on I ran my math class that way! This had the biggest impact on achievement and motivation of anything I’ve ever done. I would not recommend starting here, though. Small steps are a prudent plan–both for you and your students!
  9. In that same class (grade 4/5 combination), I made a booklet that had all the district objectives for each grade level.  I ran off the booklets and gave each student their own copy. Every month the students would mark off the objectives that they had “mastered” during the month. Of course, I had my own lists, and ALWAYS I would check them off for things for which they did not yet believe they were proficient. When I would conference with them about this, they could tell me exactly why they had not mastered the skill. Occasionally they would check off something for which I did not think they were proficient. Often they could show me in our short meeting that they were. Sometimes we just disagreed, and kept on—them with their lists, and me with mine.
  10. Finally, I included students in parent-teacher conferences. I gave them a form to fill out before the conference identifying strengths and weaknesses, needs, and a place to develop their own goals for each subject area. The student would present the plan at our conference, telling us what he wanted each of us (parents and teachers) to do to support him in achieving his goals. We would develop a plan together, with tasks for each person to accomplish, sort of like a little student-written IEP.

I did these things in general education classrooms, with general education students, ESL students, gifted students, and mildly affected special needs students, and it took a lot of years before I got to level 10! The more choice I gave the students, the harder they worked, and the better they achieved—and this was universal. That scatterbrained, wonderful, little boy who could never find his hands began to learn the things I wanted him to learn. The snarly, sarcastic little girl who did not have time for stupid school assignments started to do school work, and started to do it well. Over the course of the 24 years I spent as a regular education classroom teacher, I used these techniques, gradually developing them, and tweaking them in different ways for each new batch of kids. I ran my multi-graded classes using interest groups, skill groups, challenge groups, and workshops, tying everything together using art, science, and social studies themes. Achievement levels didn’t matter. The grade levels of the students didn’t matter, because my small group instruction was focused on specific skill needs. I just had to make sure that I had reading materials at every level represented by my students. Structure did the rest.

Parental support is essential for this type of instruction. I did not understand that at the very beginning and had one really bad year—not with the students, but with a few parents. When I began to include students in the parent-teacher conferences, support from parents mushroomed. Parents want to know their children are learning and passing the standards. They want them to work hard, and they don’t want to be constantly trouble-shooting problems. They want to see progress, and when students are motivated, progress shows. Choice motivates student effort, at least in my experience, BUT choice without a lot of structure will never work. More on that next time.

Photo Credit:  Love to Learn:  Photo by geralt, via Pixabay.com.

Posted in Learning, Student Choice | Tagged learning, Motivation, , support | Leave a comment

Land Regions of a State: Interest Groups

oak tree combined

I am sharing some units and projects which I’ve used with groups of students of widely varying ability and achievement levels. Since I teach thematically (no matter what grade or type of class I may be working with), I tend to think and plan in units which focus on an art, science, or social studies theme. Within the units are the same kind of lessons that you use every day, and I hope that maybe they’ll show you that you are actually differentiating more than you might realize!

Each post will tell you a little about the school I was working in at the time, the type of class I had, and the objective I was focused on. I hope you’ll find them helpful!

Land Regions: Interest Groups

School: K-6 elementary school in a suburban area

Class: 3/4 Grade Combination Class with 22 girls and 9 boys, a learning disabled student in the Resource Specialists Program, several gifted students, and several ESL students.

Objective: Students will produce a product about the state’s land regions that will entertain and inform others. They will use “how to” books and articles to learn a new skill that they will use to create their product.

The Unit:
The thematic unit we were studying was the state’s three main land regions. I wanted students to write about each region in a way they had not experienced before, as well as practice the use of “how to” books and articles. I found books at Scholastic on how to take photographs, and how to make a movie. I found library books about myths that were appropriate to the students’ reading levels. I introduced three projects to the class:

• Create a photo essay
• Make a movie
• Write a myth

I explained what each project would entail, encouraged the students to discuss the choices with their parents at home that night, and the next day I let them choose which interest group they wanted to join. All students made their own choices.

All students had to learn about the state’s regions, because their purpose was to produce a product that would teach others about this subject. Their final products would be given to the library for other students to check out, so the work needed to be correct, informative, and interesting. In addition to the research materials we had in our classroom, we took a field trip to a nearby nursery to learn about native plants, and visited a nature preserve that featured gardens of the different regions we were studying.

Here’s what each group did:

Create a Photo essay: Make a book about the land regions, illustrating it with student-made photographs.
Students were to study the book on photography, practicing at school with my husband’s SLR camera. I gave them some class time, and they also used some of their recess time. At the same time, they were collecting information about the plants, animals, and land forms of each region. They had a class camera to use on field trips and at school as well as the “big” camera.

Make a Movie: Make a movie about the land regions.
Students were to study the book on how to make a movie, and complete each step as they learned about it. They created a storyboard, developed props and backdrops, and invited individual students from other groups to share some of their materials and information.  They had a video camera to bring with them on the field trips, and they filmed “live action” there. They wrote a script, and filmed the rest of the movie right in our classroom while the rest of the class was working quietly on their own tasks.

Write a myth: Publish a book of myth(s) that would tell about the plants and animals of the regions.
This group used materials about how to publish books, books about myths, and picture books of myths. Since they had published many items prior to this, that part was easy. The difficulty for this group was to read enough myths to develop a construct about what they are. I thought it would be very hard for them, but it wasn’t. There were so many picture books available at so many levels they figured it out quickly.

I did not direct their choices at all, and I was VERY surprised at most of the choices they made! I thought everyone would want to make a movie, but it turned out that each group had almost identical numbers of students. There were children of all abilities in each group, and NO behavioral issues at any time, although they did get tired of being quiet while filming was going on! It was very common for students to continue working right through recess, and many of them worked on the project at home, as well. “Lower achieving” students often made important contributions to the group because of skills they had that are often not used in school. They could make suggestions to “higher achievers” who in turn would help them with skills that were more difficult for them.

At the end, we had a whole class that knew a great deal about the state’s land regions, and three beautiful products to share with the rest of the school. I did almost nothing to facilitate or differentiate learning during this project. The images show samples from the photo essay. The image at the top of the page was a collaboration between 3 students of vastly differing achievement levels. The article at the bottom was created by a single student.  We spent about 3 weeks total, using most of the reading, writing, and social studies periods.  I met with each group each day for directed skill instruction based on their needs as well as district objectives, and provided what little guidance was needed.


Posted in Classroom Publishing, How To..., Instructional Planning, Integrated Instruction, Language Arts, Literacy Activities, Natural Resources, Plants, Project Based Learning, Special Education, Thematic Teaching, Workshop Style Teaching, Writing | Tagged differentiation, inclusion, land regions, make a movie, photo essay, publish a myth, science, science projects, social studies | Leave a comment

Egypt: Lesson Accommodations


For the next few weeks I’m going to share some lessons which I’ve used with groups of students of widely varying ability and achievement levels. Since I teach thematically (no matter what grade or type of class I may be working with), my lessons tend to be in units, and focus on an art, science, or social studies theme. They are the same kind of lessons that you use every day, and I hope that maybe they’ll show you that you are actually differentiating more than you might realize!

Each post will tell you a little about the school I was working in at the time, the type of class I had, and the objective I was focused on. I hope you’ll find them helpful!

Egypt:  A LA/Social Studies unit about ancient Egypt

School: 5-8 grade middle school in a rural area.

Class: Self contained special day class with ten students in grades 6-8. Abilities ranged from below average to gifted. Achievement ranged from second grade to above grade level.

Objective: Students will learn about ancient Egypt through hands-on projects based on a simulation Game called “Egypt.” They will read about the period through fiction and non-fiction books suitable to individual reading levels, and they will write about the period from a point of view of their choice.

The Unit:
I often used simulation units from Interact as the foundation for thematic units. (I used them with students from preschool-eighth grade, in general education and special education.) I find that students who are put in the situation they are studying understand it far more deeply, and are greatly more engaged than those who simply read and listen about a subject. These simulations often come with a great deal of reading content, and hands-on projects that force the students to see from the point of view that they are studying. All materials are included, along with specific lesson plans, however, I rarely used one without making some accommodations for the students I was teaching.  Here are the changes I made for this particular group:

Accommodation 1:  I collected as many books as I could about Egypt, at as many reading levels as I could find.  I used books from the public library so that I could find materials at a lower level than the ones in the school library.

Accommodation 2: This simulation is designed for grades 5-10, so the reading material was too difficult for some of the students. Because the reading content is contained on pages to be run off, it is very easy to create texts of varying difficulty, although it does take some time. Here’s what I did:

  1. I chose a font that matched the one contained in the original materials.
  2. I typed a new version of each article by simplifying the vocabulary, and shortening the sentences. If the material was too complicated for some students, I took out the concepts that were least important, and focused on the information that I wanted them all to know.
  3. I scanned in images from the original materials and added them to the pages in the same places.
  4. I printed out all the materials, which all looked very similar.
  5. When it was time to use the items, I told the students what I had done, explaining that there were several different texts, which all had the same information, but some were easier to read. I laid them in stacks of “easy, medium, and hard,” and I let each student choose which one to use. After one or two days of this, they were all choosing levels that were most appropriate for them.

Accommodation 3: Some of the concepts were not sufficiently developed for my group of students, so I created a couple of activities that would reinforce the learning. Specifically these were related to the 3D map that students create of the Nile valley.  We spent a much longer time on each section of the map, and did additional research, adding this information to the map.

Accommodation 4:  I deleted some of the activities included, to focus on the concepts that were most relevant to the state objectives.

As a result of these accommodations and the excellent materials I was using:

  • All students learned the same information.
  • All students could participate in the same discussions and activities.
  • All students could complete the same projects and activities, at their own ability level.
  • Some of the “lower achieving” students actually made more advanced projects because of their art or manipulative abilities.
  • All students could take the same tests, although once again, I adjusted the reading levels for this.

Because of the hands-on projects and experiences provided by simulations, the concepts the students were reading and then writing about were far more comprehensible to them than if they had not completed any projects. All of the projects and activities could be completed at an individual level.

I LOVE Interact! It was my most valued asset during my more than 30 teaching years. I hope you’ll check them out! They have hundreds of wonderful tools for providing access to complicated ideas for a broad range of learners.

Posted in Egypt, How To..., Instructional Planning, Integrated Instruction, Project Based Learning | Tagged accommodations, Egypt, Integrated Instruction, Simulations, social studies, special education, Thematic Teaching | 2 Comments

All About Me–Writing Lesson Plans


For the next few weeks I’m going to share some lessons which I’ve used with groups of students of widely varying ability and achievement levels. Since I teach thematically (no matter what grade or type of class I may be working with), my lessons tend to be in units, and focus on an art, science, or social studies theme. They are the same kind of lessons that you use every day, and I hope that maybe they’ll show you that you are actually differentiating more than you might realize!

Each post will tell you a little about the school I was working in at the time, the type of class I had, and the objective I was focused on. I hope you’ll find them helpful!


All About Me: An Autobiography
A writing unit for the first 2 weeks of school

School: PS-4th grade Elementary School in a rural area with 4 classes of 30-35 students at fourth grade level. Grades PS-3 had a full-time assistant in each class who did all the lunch and yard duties, as well as helped in the class for the full day. Fourth grade teachers had no assistants, and covered all duties themselves.

Class: heterogeneous 4th grade class of 32 students which included 2 developmentally delayed children from a special day class, and a student from the resource specialist program. There were 3 gifted students in the class, as well. Special education services did not begin until the third week of school.

Objective: Students will write on a subject that they are very familiar with (themselves) and create a book illustrated with photographs to share with the class, and add to the class library. This would act as a baseline writing assessment, which would enable me to develop writing lessons, and plan future writing activities and projects. It would be part of student writing portfolios.

The Unit:
Before school started, I sent home a letter to each parent and enclosed a postcard to each student introducing myself, and explaining the writing project. I asked each parent to talk with their children about topics for their “autobiography”, and then to help them choose 4-5 photographs that they could bring to school. The photographs were to be scanned into the classroom computers, and then returned to the parents.

On the first day of school about half of the students arrived with their photographs in hand. I had another letter ready to send home that day with the students who did not yet have any photographs. By the end of the first week, all but one student had photographs. I took digital photographs of the student who didn’t bring any.

Day 1: Mini lesson on interviewing others. Students developed questions they wanted to ask specific classmates, and then went around doing “mini” interviews. We discussed some of the questions, evaluated them on how interesting they might be to other people, and shared responses.

Day 2: The class developed some interesting questions they felt should be answered in a story about themselves. I read a picture book biography of a famous person to the class (I believe it was one of the presidents), and then compared the information in it with their questions. They asked questions about the book I read to them. Then we revised the questions they originally proposed. Students then individually wrote several questions they might want to answer in their autobiography.

Day 3: I read another picture book biography to the class. (I believe this was a picture book about Ruby Bridges.) This one focused on one event in the person’s life, rather than on their whole life. The students compared and discussed the two books, and began to plan their own stories. They met in small groups and each person shared their pictures and their ideas for their autobiography. The group asked questions and gave feedback. Each student wrote a brief description of their plan for their book and turned them in to me.

Day 4: We began writing. I modeled a paragraph for my first paragraph, including one of my photographs. Students then began their rough drafts. At the end of the period, those who wanted to, shared what they had written, and the class commented, asked questions, and made suggestions.

Day 5: We continued with rough drafts, sharing in small groups at the end of the period. Most students were finishing their rough drafts by the end of the period.

Day 6: I modeled appropriate response group behavior by “performing” a group with willing students in front of the class. By this time all students had worked in small groups several times, and I had worked with them enough that they were pretty ready for the task. Students met in groups of 3-4 students. (Since this was the very beginning of the year, the students always chose who to work with in small groups. Later, they were required to work with any and everyone in the class.) Each student shared their draft, and listened as other students asked questions and made suggestions.

Mini lesson on revising a draft, modeling once again. I physically cut, pasted, and added and deleted information using chart paper and my “autobiography.” Students then worked on their own drafts. Those who were hesitant to work independently worked with me until they were ready to go on their own.

Day 7: Finished revising. Mini lesson on conventions using CUPS: Capitals, usage, punctuation, spelling. (Usage was new to them.) I didn’t want to do too much instruction at this point, because I wanted to see what they already knew and used.

Day 8: Students began typing their final drafts. They scanned in their photographs, and placed them in their stories, saved, and printed them. These were the versions used for their portfolios and my assessment.

Since I don’t like to have models with mistakes for student use, I always edit any student created material before printing it for the classroom or school library. Sometimes I tell each student how many errors they have and they try to find them all. Sometimes I assign students to edit each other’s final drafts. Sometimes I have a parent volunteer do it. No matter what else, I always do the final edit myself. I’m just particular that way.

When the piece is perfect (at least as far as I know), I print it, collate it, staple it, and the student presents it to the class or the school’s librarian.

This project worked quite well and was one of the smoothest activities of that first 2 weeks of the year. The special needs students were able to do all that the other students did, but they used much fewer sentences, and shorter phrases. Other students helped with spelling if needed. They could meet in the same groups with the other students. They could share their work. They could offer suggestions and ask questions of other students. Workshop style teaching makes it very easy to differentiate, even when the achievement levels of students in the group are quite disparate.

Because this was an assessment activity, I did not do a lot of teaching about autobiographies—I simply emphasized they were writing about their lives. Later in the year we did a unit on biographies and autobiographies, reading them and writing them to learn in greater depth. Integrating writing activities with reading provides incredible support and allows students to grasp both language areas deeper, quicker, and stronger. (Usage?)

Posted in Classroom Publishing, How To..., Integrated Instruction, Language Arts, Literacy Activities, Project Based Learning, Social Studies Themes, Special Education, Thematic Teaching, Thinking About Teaching, Workshop Style Teaching, Writing | 2 Comments

Including All Students in General Education Classrooms


Inclusion of special needs children into classrooms of general education students seems to be a difficult area for many teachers. Throughout my career, I was involved in many conversations about how to accomplish this very worthwhile task while meeting everyone’s needs. As a classroom teacher trained in special education, I also struggled with this issue from time to time. Overall, I found that integrating instruction through themes presented in a workshop format made inclusion much easier and usually more successful. Here are reasons why this would work:

  • Thematic instruction allows students to study a subject in-depth and from a variety of different approaches.
  • When language arts are the foundation of the unit, students are able to use their best communication channel to learn in the content areas.
  • Workshop style instruction offers information to the group as a whole, and then provides choice to the students as they work with the new skill. For example, each student in a class studying historical fiction can be reading in a different novel. Each child can participate equally in all assignments regarding historical fiction even though they are reading different books. Children can be grouped together for discussion and analysis regardless of their reading levels. Writing, speaking, and listening, all work the same way. Students learn a new skill together and practice and apply it at their own level of achievement.
  • Concentrating instruction on a particular science or social studies theme means the students are learning science and/or social studies the entire day. Centers containing artifacts and manipulatives related to the theme make the information more concrete and comprehensible. If students are allowed to create artifacts to include at the center, as in a classroom museum, more learning channels are activated as they build and use these hands-on materials.

Previously posted on another website.

Posted in Classroom Management, Instructional Planning, Integrated Instruction, Language Arts, Learning, Special Education, Workshop Style Teaching | 2 Comments