Creative Teaching: An Introduction to Project-Based Learning

What we learn to do, we learn by doing.

Thomas Jefferson

As one of our founding fathers stated so long ago, in order to truly learn a new skill, we must use it. Now, in the educational world, this does not mean doing more practice problems. It also does not mean more homework. What it does mean is to apply a new skill to an authentic, real-life project that we may encounter in our everyday lives, whether as a kid or an adult.

Cue one of my favorite creative teaching practices…project-based learning, or PBL. This month, we have been chatting a lot about advanced learning, and this teaching method is perfect for your gifted learners! Having said that, please do not hesitate to use PBL with all of your learners, regardless of their academic levels. Should a project be challenging for a specific group of students, incorporate mixed-level partnerships, teacher check-ins, and small group work. There are so many opportunities to include intervention and differentiation within PBL.

In this blog post, we will get a brief overview of project-based learning by addressing the following questions:

  • What is project-based learning?
  • What are the benefits of project-based learning?
  • How do I get started?

What is project-based learning?

PBL, or project-based learning, is a teaching method in which students gain and apply knowledge through long-term projects that encourage critical thinking in multiple subject areas, creativity, and collaboration. Often, these projects are completed hand-in-hand with the curriculum. In other words, students work on these projects at the same time that they are learning the necessary skills for the task at hand.

Although I will walk you through how to get plan a project later in this post, I would like to explain what I mean by working on the project at the same time as working through the curriculum. Although PBL can act as the curriculum itself, with teachers implementing skill-based lessons as students work through their projects, PBL can also be used to supplement a curriculum. Let’s say that you have a project where students are designing a menu based on seasonal, local ingredients. They would need to learn about a specific location or biome, research popular recipes, calculate the cost of ingredients, and write menu descriptions using persuasive language. Rather than teach all of these skills at once and then start the project, I would teach a mini-lesson on the first skill and then have students apply that skill to their menus. I would start with science lessons on various biomes, for instance. Afterward, the students would work in pairs to brainstorm plants and animals in their chosen biomes. For the next lesson, I may teach a research skill (i.e. how to identify reliable sources or how to look up a library book) before having students research popular recipes. I would go back and forth between mini-lessons and PBL work time.

What are the benefits of project-based learning?

What I love most about project-based learning is that it emphasizes “the why”. Students discover first-hand why they are learning the skills in class. For example, students may discover why they need to learn about decimals if they are creating a budget or developing a menu for a restaurant. As a teacher, it is sometimes difficult to communicate why we learn the skills we do. With project-based learning, these conversations come up naturally in lessons.

Another benefit of PBL is that it encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Every project-based learning activity should start with a Driving Question. This question is the task or challenge that students must address through the completion of the project. Please note that this is not the learning objective. It should not be structured as a state standard or an “I can” statement. Rather, the Driving Question should introduce students to the real-life application problem that needs to be solved. Here are a few examples:

  • How can we design a low-cost playground in an abandoned lot with _________ dimensions?
  • How can we start a non-profit organization to address _______________?
  • If ______________ (historical figure from any given time period) were to start an online business today, what would it be?
  • Develop a reserve for an endangered species.
  • Using your knowledge of what made ancient societies successful, create your own civilization.

PBL also allows for student voice and choice. When designing a PBL project, make sure the project does not have a “right or wrong” answer. There should be room for creativity and interpretation. When writing the Driving Question, make sure it is an open-ended question; it cannot be a “yes or no” question. In addition, allow students to make some choices throughout the assignment, such as choosing the online program to use, choosing the topic or subject for the project, selecting their partners or groups (this requires a brave teacher), etc. By giving students opportunities to make their own choices, you are encouraging students to take ownership of their learning, which leads me to the next point…

Project-based learning increases engagement by encouraging students to take ownership and pride in their learning. I cannot emphasize this point enough. No matter which grade I have taught in the past, I have noticed one commonality: students become very proud of their PBL projects. When a student takes this kind of ownership, they become invested, and this investment results in higher engagement.

How do I get started?

So, now that we have learned a bit about project-based learning, how do we get started? You can start planning your own PBL assignment in just a few steps. I will go over these steps below but will dive deeper into them in my next blog post. Stay tuned!

  1. Choose one main subject area. This will be your focus. I usually center my projects around social studies or science. These projects often act as our assessments in those subject areas.
  2. Write a Driving Question. (My next post will go into detail about how to write a strong Driving Question.)
  3. Divide the project into parts and choose your target standards. You may want each part to focus on one essential standard. For example, if students are creating online businesses, one part may be calculating cost/profit (math standard) and another part may be creating an advertisement or product descriptions (writing standard).
  4. Create a rubric and success criteria to share with your students. This is critical for student success. Students need to know what is expected of them.
  5. Introduce the project and show exemplar examples. If you teach the same grade level and use the same project year after year, you will collect some exemplar examples. Until then, feel free to show examples from the real world. For instance, before my students start creating their own online companies, I show examples of websites (i.e. McDonalds, Disneyland, etc.). In the next lesson, I even show examples of logos and mission statements.
  6. Choose partners or small groups. Even if you want students to work independently on their projects, I would strongly encourage you to assign mixed-level partnerships. This allows all students to have a partner who can offer feedback and help brainstorm ideas.
  7. Create a timeline and check-ins. Once the project has been planned and introduced, it is time to get to work! Plan mini-lessons and check-ins. As mentioned earlier, I recommend going back and forth between mini-lessons and work time. After every few lessons, I would plan a check-in with the students so you can offer feedback on each part of the project. I know what you are thinking…this must take a ton of time! I myself have 35 students, but I meet with them in pairs/small groups. It only takes a few minutes per pair/group. Trust me, this is completely manageable and will save a lot of heartache. Your future self will thank you. Without check-ins, you risk students being totally off the mark or even worse, not completing the project at all.

Wouldn’t it be nice to only do the final two steps?

Let me do the planning for you!

Check back here for some ready-made PBL projects.

Project-based learning does not have to be daunting or time-consuming. Does it take time to plan? Yes. Do you have to do it alone? No. I am more than happy to help you get started!!! Simply email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com.

Once your students get started on their projects, you will get to see the real magic happen: student engagement, ownership, and creativity will significantly increase. You will be blown away by the work that students produce! Plus, once you have these completed projects, your students will have something very impressive to show at Open House, PBL showcase (more info to come in a future post), or parent-teacher conferences. This is a teaching style that will completely transform your classroom.

Other Blog Posts that Specifically Target Your Advanced Learners

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not to Rotate?Learn how to make small group learning manageable in your upper-grade math classroom. Your advanced kids will love you for it!
Flip It: How Can a Flipped Classroom Help Improve Student Engagement?Learn how to flip your classroom to help you meet the needs of your advanced learners while supporting the kids who need you the most.
Depth and Complexity Icons: Where Book Clubs Meet Advanced LearningDiscover how depth and complexity icons fit into your student-run book clubs.

Depth and Complexity Icons: Where Book Clubs Meet Advanced Learning

Listen to the podcast episode.

Good teaching is good teaching.

-unknown source

Early on in my career, I had a principal that really inspired me to be the best teacher I could be. When we used to chat about educational philosophies and teaching practices, she would always end the conversation by saying, “Good teaching is simply good teaching.” What she meant by this was that although there are various strategies specifically designed for certain populations, most if not all of those strategies are beneficial to ALL students. The most important step to take as an educator is to differentiate your instruction using all of these various models and modalities to best meet the needs of your students.

That brings me to this blog post…although depth and complexity icons were created to target advanced learners, I wholeheartedly believe they benefit all students. This month, I am focusing on advanced learning, but just as my first principal used to say, “Good teaching is good teaching.”

Therefore, today we are going to chat about a teaching strategy that is generally used for gifted learners but can actually benefit all students. That strategy is using Depth and Complexity Icons, specifically, using those icons to help with Book Club discussions. In this post, we will cover…

  • General Information About the Icons
  • Ways to Incorporate the Icons in Student-Run Book Clubs

About the Icons

Depth and Complexity Icons are meant to help students organize their thinking while encouraging them to critically think about the topic at hand. Originally, there were 11 icons. Let’s go over the basics of these first 11 icons:

Big Idea

Use this icon for daily objectives, writing prompts, the main idea of a text, and unit questions. This can be used for any subject area and “big picture” concepts.


Use this icon to help support the main idea of a text. This can be used for supporting details and evidence. It is ideal for paragraph writing but can be used for almost any subject. I especially like to use it for language arts, social studies, and science.

Language of the Discipline

Use this icon to help introduce vocabulary in any subject. It can also be used in vocabulary lessons that target specific skills, such as context clues.

Unanswered Questions

Use this icon for research and reading. I always teach my students that strong readers ask questions. This is an icon we use very regularly during read-alouds and Reading Workshop. It can also be used as a way to check for understanding after a lesson in any subject. Perhaps students can ask a question on their exit ticket in math should any questions arise after the lesson.

Multiple Perspectives

Use this icon to help look at different points of view in literature or social studies. I feel this icon is best suited for the humanities, however, it can also be used to help teach social skills. If students get into an argument on the playground, for instance, use this icon to help teach them how to see the other child’s point of view. I have seen teachers use depth and complexity icons as a way for students to reflect on their behavior. This icon in particular would be very useful for that.


Use this icon to look at repeating ideas or concepts. I use this icon most often in math and social studies. In math, we look at examples of a new skill or math term and look for patterns in order to define that term or practice that new skill. In social studies, we look for patterns within societies, amongst historical figures, in different time periods, and so on. This icon can also be used in literature, especially when comparing texts by the same author or in the same genre.

Change Over Time

Use this icon to evaluate how people and places change over time. This icon is ideal for literature, social studies, and science. You could evaluate how a character developed in a book, how a country changed over time, or how animals adapted to their environments. The possibilities are endless.


Use this icon when judging the morality of a person’s decisions or actions. It is ideal for the humanities, specifically literature and social sciences. This can also be used to support SEL or student behavior reflections.


Use this icon for virtually any subject. It can be helpful when learning grammar, new math skills, or when studying any society whether fictional or from a time period in history. It is used to categorize rules and laws.


Use this icon when looking at patterns over a longer period of time, such as when studying time periods in history or when analyzing scientific data. This could also be used in math, especially in when learning about statistics.

Across the Disciplines

Use this icon when referencing multiple subject areas. This is perfect for when you are reading a nonfiction text that is related to either science or social studies. It can also be used when acquiring background knowledge before reading a book. Perhaps the class is learning about a specific time period in history before reading a historical fiction novel. This icon would be perfect! It is also ideal for project-based learning activities (PBL). If you are unfamiliar with PBL, make sure to check out my next blog post. I will post in a couple of weeks.

Using the Icons in Student-Run Book Clubs

First, let me talk a little about book clubs. For those of you who know me, you know that I absolutely love Reading Workshop and book clubs! These strategies are designed to instill a love of reading. It is a great way to support reading instruction, provide differentiated activities, and build classroom community. By allowing students to choose their own books, you are giving them ownership over their own learning. You will notice that over time, students will actually recommend books to each other and encourage each other to read. I often hear kids discussing book recommendations as they go out to recess or lunch. It is truly incredible!

Although I will not be going over the basics of Reading Workshop or book clubs in this post, I have written several posts in the past. I have also recorded several podcast episodes about these topics, as well.

If you are new to Reading Workshop, check out these blog posts:
5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is it Effective?
Launch Reading Workshop in 5 Easy Steps
An Introduction to Book Clubs for Elementary Students
Facilitating Book Club Discussions in 3 Easy Steps

I would recommend teaching each icon to the class as a whole before having book clubs use them in their own discussions. I would then go back and forth before whole group lessons and book club discussions. Let me explain…

I would start by introducing the Big Idea icon to the class. For upper grade students, I would probably introduce the Details icon at the same time. I would use a mentor text to model both of these icons, focusing on using the icons to help me write a paragraph response to a writing prompt. I would teach the students how to use a Thinking Map or similar graphic organizer to take notes while reading. In the next lesson, I would ask book clubs to practice using the same icons that I had previously modeled. As a group, they would read together and take notes using the same graphic organizer that we used in our whole group lesson. While they are working in groups, I would walk around, observing their discussions, posing questions, and offering support if needed.

During the next lesson, I would go back to teaching whole group. This time, I would either teach one or two new icons or re-teach the previous icons if needed. Use your observations to guide your instruction! If all but one group mastered the last two icons, perhaps you could just meet with that book club to re-teach. The choice is yours!

Eventually, once all of the icons have been taught and mastered, I would teach students how to write their own writing prompts. This would be a great time to sneak in a vocabulary lesson. I always teach students to use BOTH academic and content-specific vocabulary in their writing prompts. You could even have them write a question and then change it to add in more vocabulary. I would even have them highlight the different types of vocabulary in their revised questions. In the example below, I wrote the academic vocab in green and the content-specific vocab in pink.

In this example, the students came up with a question (left column) and then improved it by adding vocabulary (right column).

Change This…To That…
How has a character changed in the story?Analyze how a character has developed over the course of a dystopian text.

Developing questions while using vocabulary could be a completely separate blog post, so we cannot cover everything today. However, I did want to introduce you to this idea since it is perfect for book clubs once the Depth and Complexity Icons have been taught. Should you have questions about incorporating vocabulary instruction in book clubs or want to dive deeper into teaching students how to develop their own questions, feel free to email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would be happy to help!

Although Depth and Complexity Icons are useful to all subjects, they can really be helpful when facilitating book club discussions. They help students organize their thinking and encourage them to critically think about a text.

To help you get started, I created a FREE resource that shares some possible book club questions that incorporate the Depth and Complexity Icons. They are listed in the order that I would teach them. Make sure to download your freebie!

Make sure to check out my next blog post. It will cover another teaching strategy that is perfect for advanced learners: PBL. Project-based learning is a great way to incorporate multiple subjects, apply skills to an engaging project, and encourage creativity. Remember…although these activities are great for your gifted students, good teaching is good teaching. These strategies are beneficial to ALL students!

Other Blog Posts that Specifically Target Your Advanced Learners

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not to Rotate?Learn how to make small group learning manageable in your upper-grade math classroom. Your advanced kids will love you for it!
Flip It: How Can a Flipped Classroom Help Improve Student Engagement?Learn how to flip your classroom to help you meet the needs of your advanced learners while supporting the kids who need you the most.

Flip It: How Can a flipped classroom improve student engagement?

Listen to the podcast.

Are you looking to improve student engagement during your differentiated lessons? Would you like to prioritize higher-order thinking skills while meeting the needs of every learner in your class?

Then, I suggest you flip your classroom!

Flipped learning has been around for almost two decades, though it has gained popularity over the last several years. In my opinion, this is primarily due to the pandemic. Hybrid teachers, you know exactly what I’m talking about…as a hybrid teacher, I had to figure out a way to maximize learning during the short amount of time I had with my students. Therefore, I decided to incorporate a flipped classroom model.

I assigned online video lessons for students to complete at home. That way, by the time they came to me, they already had some background knowledge on the subject. Now, I had been using a version of a flipped classroom for years, so I was already in that mindset. If you have never used this type of model, have no fear! I will walk you through what it looks like and how it can benefit you and your students.

Let’s start by examining what a flipped classroom looks like…

What is a flipped classroom?

Traditionally, a flipped classroom is a unique pedagogical approach where students learn a new skill at home and then participate in more hands-on activities in class. I feel this approach is ideal for certain subjects, such as language arts and social sciences. However, as elementary school teachers, we know that some of our students would struggle with completing the homework every night. This would put those students at a significant disadvantage.

Therefore, I incorporate flipped learning within the four walls of my classroom. When students are not in a small group lesson with me, they are engaging in an online lesson where they are introduced to a new skill. That way, by the time they join me for a lesson, they have already previewed the new material.

The potential benefits of the flipped classroom model are numerous, but I think the most significant advantages are the following:

Flipped learning…

  • increases student engagement
  • helps implement differentiated instruction
  • allows for more time spent on higher-order thinking skills
  • results in more “bang for your buck” during mini-lessons

Over the years, I have played around with different ways of incorporating flipped learning into my instruction. In this blog post, I would like to review the three most helpful ways of flipping your classroom.

Differentiate Your Pacing

One of the easiest ways of differentiating your instruction is to adjust your pacing. Advanced learners benefit from moving quickly through the curriculum while struggling learners need to move at a slower pace, as they often need to see new material more than once. By flipping your instruction, students can move through the material at their own pace.

For example, I have my advanced learners preview two or three lessons at a time. By the time they come to me for a mini-lesson, they have often mastered the next two or three skills. I spend the mini-lesson addressing student misconceptions and posing challenging questions that encourage critical thinking. The beauty behind this routine is that my advanced learners are constantly challenged, which results in higher engagement.

For my struggling learners, I do the opposite. I often meet with them first and then have them watch a “re-teach video” of the same skill. This allows them to receive the same instruction but in a different way. This routine helps to reinforce new skills.

I use this type of flipped classroom during my daily math block. Check out this post or podcast episode to learn more!

“Pre-Assess” New Skills

Another way you can use flipped learning within your classroom is by using it as a pre-assessment. Simply assign your entire class a video and/or exit ticket. Use the results of that exit ticket to determine who needs the full lesson and who is ready for enrichment.

For the students who have already mastered the standard, you can assign enrichment activities in the form of playlists*, project-based learning activities, or math games. While they are working independently or with partners, you are free to provide targeted instruction to the students who need it. This allows you to focus on a smaller number of students during your lesson, thus resulting in more one-on-one teaching opportunities.

*If you are unfamiliar with playlists, they are a list of tasks that students complete at their own pace. The tasks usually progress from easy to difficult, thus providing students the opportunity to gradually deepen their understanding of a skill.

Focus on Collaboration and Projects

This last way of flipping your classroom is more of a traditional model. I especially like to use this model for language arts and social sciences. Students are asked to complete the assigned reading for homework; that way, they can participate in more collaborative activities while at school.

Language Arts

In language arts, there are so many opportunities to incorporate the flipped classroom model. For example, rather than read a novel as a class, students read at home and participate in a debate or discussion during instruction. This lends itself to a more thorough investigation of the literature. The teacher can move away from low-level thinking questions and pose more complex analysis questions.

Now if you are like me, I do not teach using whole class novel studies. Instead, I use Reading Workshop. Flipped learning can easily be applied to Reading Workshop. Students read their chosen novels at home and while at school, the teacher teaches a new skill using a mentor text. Students then practice that skill during classwork or homework time. Read how to launch Reading Workshop here, or listen to the podcast episode.

Book Clubs also lend themselves to a flipped classroom model! For upper grades, I would actually teach my students how to create a reading schedule for their clubs. With some guidance, they would decide what chapters to read each night. During class, they would then participate in a mini-lesson based on the target reading skill and practice that new skill while discussing the book. Learn more about how to facilitate book club discussions in an elementary classroom!

Flipped learning is also ideal for writing instruction. Students can complete their brainstorming/pre-writing at home and focus on revision/peer review at school. Alternatively, perhaps you would like your students to complete their rough drafts at home so that while in class, you can meet with small groups and focus on targeted, differentiated instruction.

Take a look at the ideas below:

At HomeAt School
Read a chapterBook club discussion
Research a nonfiction topicPresent a student-run workshop
Pre-writingMini-lesson on how to structure a paragraph/essay
Write rough draftPeer review or targeted writing intervention/enrichment
Ideas for a Flipped Classroom in Language Arts

Social Sciences

Social sciences are ideal for a flipped classroom model. Textbooks are often very dry and focus mostly on historical facts. A successful history class does not only focus on such facts but on how that information shaped our society. Collaborative activities, such as Socratic Seminars, debates, and project-based learning assignments, should be the primary focus of this subject. The trouble is that teachers often do not have time to teach the content and facilitate collaborative activities. Therefore, a flipped classroom is ideal.

Let’s say, for instance, that you are a sixth-grade teacher who is teaching early human history. Rather than teach the various time periods of evolution, have students read that lesson at home. In class, you can hold a mini-lesson about the key takeaways and then have students create their own clan of early humans. They decide what time period they lived in, their diet, and their lifestyle. Of course, all of this is based on what they learned during their reading. They then create a cave art project where they draw symbols to represent their clan’s lifestyle. These art projects provide a quick, engaging way to assess your students’ understanding of early human history.

The ideas below provide some examples of how the traditional flipped classroom can be applied to your social sciences course:

At HomeAt School
Research art/literature in a given time periodArt project
Prepare for a debateClass debate
Analyze primary & secondary sourcesSocratic Seminar
Read the textbook to obtain background knowledgeProject-based learning assignment
Ideas for a Flipped Classroom in Social Sciences

Flipped classrooms do not need to be daunting or difficult to manage. They also do not necessarily need to require homework. There are so many ways to flip your learning, and I hope that you found one that resonates with you.

Once you are comfortable with one idea, try a second one in a different subject. Ideally, you can choose different ways to flip your classroom depending on the learning outcomes and subject areas.

As always, feel free to leave a comment or email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would love to help you flip your classroom! Let’s brainstorm together!!!

Learn More About Differentiated Instruction

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s GuideLearn how to incorporate phonics instruction, fluency passages, and technology into your literacy centers.
Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not to Rotate?Learn how to make small group learning manageable in your upper-grade math classroom.
5 Tips on How to Launch Reading Workshop SuccessfullyLearn how to level books, celebrate student successes, and recommend books to students.

Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not To Rotate

Are math centers only for primary grades?
Is it necessary to rotate centers?
How do I manage math centers and make sure students are on task?

Upper-grade teachers, if you are asking yourself any of these questions, you are not alone! As many of you may already know, I have taught a variety of grade levels and worked with several teachers, both new and veteran. One thing that I have noticed is that differentiated centers seem to stop at third grade.


Honestly, I wholeheartedly believe that all upper-grade classrooms should be differentiated, and centers are the perfect way to do that! Having said that, I do not rotate stations in the upper grades. Instead, I meet with groups as needed. I do not meet with every student for the exact same amount of time. Let me tell you how I came to this realization…

When I first started teaching upper grades, I was placed in a fourth grade. Now, before that, I had almost exclusively worked with kindergarteners and first graders. So, going from K-1 to grade 4 was a HUGE JUMP!!! I of course was in the routine of math rotations. So, I implemented them just I had done in the primary grades.

After about two weeks, I realized that the stations were not working as well as they had with the younger kiddos. It had nothing to do with management, but I was contantly feeling rushed during my lessons. What I realized was that 15-20 minutes for an upper-grade lesson was not nearly enough, especially for struggling learners.

Although it was enough time for the advanced learners, my intervention kids needed more teacher time. I thought to myself, “There must be a better way…”

Thus, I made it my teacher goal to figure out a way to teach small groups while meeting the unique needs of each of my groups. Over the next two years, I worked on being able to differentiate without rotating stations.

I decided to use a task chart instead. Each group would have three tasks in every math lesson, one of them being a lesson with me. I also decided not to meet with my advanced learners every day. This would allow me to meet with the students who needed me the most more often.

Once I made these adjustments, I almost immediately started seeing results. I was not feeling so rushed, my advanced learners were more engaged, and my struggling learners started to progress academically.

Now, I know what you are thinking…that’s not fair to my advanced learners. Let me explain…I truly believe that not all learning requires a teacher. Students can and should learn independently and/or with partners. There are so many online programs that will provide online lessons, thus allowing your advanced learners to participate in the “flipped classroom” model. Although I will be writing a blog post dedicated to this model in my next blog post, I would like to take a moment to briefly introduce this instructional model.

What is a “flipped classroom”? Why use it?

In a traditional “flipped classroom”, students learn new material at home and then participate in problem-solving and enrichment activities while in class. I incorporate this idea but only within the four walls of my classroom.

Let me give an example…in any curriculum, essential standards are usually scaffolded into several lessons, thus allowing students to gradually build their skills. Adding and subtracting unlike fractions, for example, may be divided into three lessons: equivalent fractions, adding fractions, and subtracting fractions. Although struggling learners will need all three lessons, advanced learners do not. They could probably get this concept in 1 or 2 lessons. Having them sit through three full lessons with several examples in each lesson not only disengages them but does not give them the opportunity to work on challenging problems and activities.

Instead, I would meet with them on the first day and teach all three concepts in one lesson. Every step of the way, I would have them solve a problem in front of me so I know whether we can move on or not. Since it is a small group rather than the entire class, I can easily observe each student as they work. At the end of the lesson, I have students solve two or three “check for understanding” questions. They solve them and show me their answers. They also rank their understanding on a scale of 1-4 (4 meaning they could tutor someone else and 1 meaning they need teacher help). If they are able to add and subtract unlike fractions by the end of the lesson AND feel confident in the new skills, they are excused to work on their exit tickets individually. Over the next two days, while I meet with other students, these advanced learners participate in one of the following activities: enrichment activities that will challenge them on adding/subtracting fractions (i.e. performance tasks), math games that target adding/subtracting fractions, or preview lessons for the next skill. This makes learning fun for them. They are constantly being challenged, whether that be working on higher-level problems or at a faster pace.

How long does it take to plan a task chart every day? How can I make this process manageable?

Good news!!! It only takes a few minutes to get these tasks ready! I highly recommend getting some dry-erase magnets and writing tasks on them that you will use frequently. For me, I have magnets with the following tasks: lesson, exit ticket, Zearn, ST Math, Byrdseed (for advanced learners), and IReady (math intervention). If I ever want to give a task not already on a magnet, I simply write it directly on the whiteboard. I use colored magnetic folders to organize my exit tickets.

Every day before I leave, I rearrange my magnetic tasks on the board. I am strategic when deciding which groups to meet with and for how long. The tables below show an example weekly schedule for when I am introducing a new math concept.

Please note that each task is not the same amount of time. For instance, task one does not take 20 minutes. This is because I want to be flexible with the time allotted for each group’s lesson. I simply call each group for lesson when it is their turn. Students work through the other tasks at their own pace. Basically, the students go through their tasks independently until I call them up for a lesson.

Monday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareIReady or Pre-AssessmentIntroductory LessonPartners: Exit Ticket
TriangleIntroductory LessonExit TicketPre-Assessment
TrapezoidIntroductory LessonExit TicketPre-Assessment
(Flipped Classroom)
Check-In Lesson 1
(Flipped Classroom)
Check-In Lesson 1
Monday’s Math Tasks

Notice that I gave a pre-assessment since we were starting a new math domain. This allows me to change the groups if needed and also informs me which skills the class has already mastered. After this first introductory lesson, I will be able to decide which lessons each group needs.

Square Group: This group should have some kind of intervention program. For us, we use IReady. This provides online instruction to help fill-in the learning gaps from previous grade levels.

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: These two groups are made up of near grade-level students (triangle) and grade-level students (trapezoid). The kids I put in the trapezoid group often benefit from extra teacher support. These are also kids who started the year below grade-level but have made significant progress.

Diamond and Circle Groups: Notice that my grade-level group (diamond) and my advanced group (circle) participate in the “flipped classroom” model. This is the model we discussed earlier in this blog post. The idea is that students are introduced to a new concept BEFORE the lesson with me. This allows us to have more of a check-in rather than a full lesson. During the check-in, I address any misconceptions, answer questions they have about the new skill, and provide more challenging problems that require higher-order thinking skills. These check-ins are often very brief and end with a “check for understanding’ question. This question gives students the opportunity to prove they have mastered the skill at hand before exiting the lesson. Since the check-ins are so brief, these students spend most of the math block either working ahead or participating in enrichment activities.

Tuesday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareLesson 1Partners: Exit TicketIReady or Math Game
Lesson 2Partners: Exit Ticket
Lesson 2Exit Ticket
DiamondPartners: Exit TicketZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Check-In Lessons 2-3
CircleExit TicketZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Check-In Lessons 2-3
Tuesday’s Math Tasks

Square Group: I chose to start with the square group today because I knew that I would need a longer lesson for this first skill. If I need to bump the check-in lesson with diamond and circle groups, I will. I can always meet with them the next day.

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: Notice that I use Zearn for these groups. Rather than work ahead like diamond and circle groups, these two groups use Zearn as a way of seeing the lesson a second time. Online programs can be used to reinforce previously taught skills. This consistent re-teaching will help solidify the students’ understanding.

Diamond and Circle Groups: I often get tasked why I have so many groups if I do not meet with all of them separately. The reason is that I have found that students benefit from hearing the thinking of peers who are performing at a higher level. Therefore, I have my grade-level students in the same lesson as the advanced learners. The difference is that for more challenging material, I have them work in partners on their exit tickets. Please note that the flipped classroom model is allowing me to teach more than one lesson to these kids. This is because by the time they come to me, they have already watched a video and practiced the new skills.

Wednesday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareIReady or Math GameLesson 2Partners: Exit Ticket
TriangleLesson 3Exit TicketZearn
TrapezoidLesson 3Exit TicketZearn
DiamondPartners: Exit TicketZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Lesson 4-5
CircleExit TicketZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Lesson 4-5
Wednesday’s Math Tasks

Square Group: If your students are struggling with their math facts, make sure to allow time for them to practice them by playing some fluency games. Various dice games and card games are easy ways to practice math facts!

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: Notice that I did not have triangle group work in partners on their exit tickets. This is because the standard taught was not too challenging, and I would like to see how they do on their own.

Diamond and Circle Groups: In this example, lesson 5 is more of an enrichment lesson. It may be a lesson with story problems or that requires critical thinking skills. This is why I planned a full lesson with my diamond and circle groups. By the end of the lesson, I would like for them to have mastered this challenging skill.

Thursday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareIReady or Math GameLesson 3Partners: Exit Ticket
TriangleLesson 4Partners: Exit TicketZearn
or Math Game
TrapezoidLesson 4Exit TicketZearn
or Math Game
DiamondPartners: Exit TicketByrdseed
Math Project
(Flipped Classroom)
CircleExit TicketByrdseed
Math Project
(Flipped Classroom)
Thursday’s Math Tasks

Square Group: Notice that I always allow my intervention kids to work on their exit tickets with a partner. This peer support helps them master new skills. These partners are assigned and within their same math group.

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: If these groups ever get too far ahead on their online learning, consider having them play a math game instead.

Diamond and Circle Groups: Most of the math time will be spent working on their math projects. If they finish early, they will continue to work ahead on Zearn. Always have a planned task in case the kids finish early. This task should be something ongoing rather than a worksheet. The beauty of a flipped classroom model is that the more they work ahead, thequicker your future check-ins will be. Trust me, once you implement this type fo learning, you will never go back!

Friday’s Math Tasks

GroupTask 1Task 2Task 3
SquareIReady or Math GameLesson 4
or Intervention
Partners: Exit Ticket
TriangleLesson 5Partners: Exit TicketMath Game
TrapezoidLesson 5Partners: Exit TicketMath Game
Math Project
Math GameZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Math Project
Math GameZearn
(Flipped Classroom)
Friday’s Math Tasks

Square Group: Notice that I do not cover lesson 5 with this group. This is a choice. If your students are not ready for the enrichment lesson, it is okay to skip it completely. Use this time to reinforce essential skills or re-teach if needed. It is better for students to master essential standards rather than just be introduced to every standard but not master any of them.

Triangle and Trapezoid Groups: For more challenging lessons, like lesson 5 in this example, I usually have both groups work in partners on their exit tickets. I would highly recommend teaching these groups the challenging lessons. Although I may skip these types of lesson for my intervention group, I want to at least expose my near grade-level kids to these enrichment lessons. They may not master them at first, but over time, they will encourage critical thinking skills.

Diamond and Circle Groups: Today’s main goal for these two groups is to finish their math projects. Again, if they finish early, they have assigned tasks they can do on their own. For the math game, I usually have them play in partners or trios. This could be any type of math game (i.e. card games, dice games, folder games, etc.).

How do I train my students to work independently?

Teachers often wonder how they can train their students to work independently. I want to share a few tips and tricks I have learned that will help your math classroom run smoothly.

  • Train your kids how to prepare for a lesson with you. For example, in my classroom, students know that they are to come to the lesson with the following supplies: math notebook, dry-erase supplies, and clipboard. (I use dry-erase clipboards, which were SO worth the investment!)
  • Have students get ready for the lesson while they wait for you. I have students write down the lesson’s title and learning objective while waiting for instruction. This frees up time for you to check in with the other groups or “put out fires” if needed. (I would love to say that this never happens, but as teachers, we know that sometimes it does.) When I am finishing up with the previous group (“check for understanding” question), I give the next group a five-minute warning. During this time, they clean up their activity and get their math supplies. While they wait for instruction, they write the title and objective in their notebooks. Sometimes, I even have them identify important key terms in the objective.
  • Use music! Playing classical music during math does wonders. It calms the students and helps keep them focused. I also recommend having timed music to help with transitions. For us, we have a 1.5-minute song that signals to students they should be writing down the title and objective in their notebooks. By the time the music ends, they know I am going to begin the lesson.
  • Plan partner work strategically. I never have too many groups working in pairs simultaneously. This prevents the classroom from getting too noisy or chaotic. Remember your focus should be on the lesson, not on quieting down the classroom. With practice and training, this system works. Trust me.

After years of trial and error, reading about differentiation, and chatting with other educators, I have finally found a way to make small-group learning work in my upper-grade classroom. Now, I absolutely love the way I teach math! It is honestly one of my favorite times of the day.

Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have. I would love to help you get your small-group lessons started! Email me at learning-n-progress.com or comment below.

Other Blog Posts Your May Enjoy

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s GuideLearn how to incorporate phonics instruction, fluency passages, and technology into your literacy centers.
5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
5 Tips on How to Launch Reading Workshop SuccessfullyLearn how to level books, celebrate student successes, and recommend books to students.

Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s Guide

Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible.

-Barack Obama

Listen to the podcast episode.

Today, we are here to talk about two of my favorite subjects…literacy and differentiation. As the quote above so eloquently reminds us, literacy is really the gateway to all other learning. In the primary grades, we know how important it is to ensure that all of our kids are reading and comprehending before they enter the upper grades. In fact, students being able to read at grade level by third grade has been one of the most significant predictors of future success in both college and career. After third grade, students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Therefore, having a strong, successful literacy program in place is imperative for any primary-grade teacher.

Literacy center rotations are perhaps one of the most commonly used models in the primary grades. They can consume a ton of prep time, however. Whether you are a veteran teacher looking to enhance your centers or a first-year teacher to the primary grades, I hope to shed some light and perhaps save you some prep time when planning your literacy block. Let’s start by addressing three commonly asked questions regarding differentiated rotations:

  • How do I start literacy centers? What is the first step?
  • How do I group students?
  • How do I run differentiated literacy centers? Is it manageable?

In this blog post, we will address these questions to help you successfully implement differentiated centers without adding more stress to your already full teacher plate.

How do I start literacy centers? What is the first step?

The first step is to assess your students’ literacy levels. Literacy can be divided into three categories: phonics, fluency, and comprehension. Although all three are important to a child’s overall success, I would address them in the order listed. In other words, address any concerns with phonics before tackling comprehension. I am NOT saying that comprehension is not just as important, but if a child cannot decode the words on the page, it is going to be near impossible to understand a text to its fullest, even with pictures and context clues.

Therefore, I recommend giving a phonics assessment to EVERY student in your primary grade classroom, regardless of the primary grade level you teach. For your convenience, I have created a quick, teacher-friendly phonics assessment. It includes a student copy, a teacher copy, and a scoring guide. The best part? The scoring guide tells you which group to place students in depending on their assessment results. Make sure to download a copy!

For the students who are able to pass the entire phonics assessment, I recommend giving a fluency assessment. (Download the FREE fluency tracker below if you need one.) The purpose of this assessment is not to see how quickly a student can read but to observe if their fluency rate may potentially affect their comprehension of a text. For example, if a student is spending so much time/effort decoding each individual word, that s/he is struggling to remember the gist of the passage, that student’s reading goal should be chunking phrases. After giving both assessments, it is time to group students according to both their reading levels and goals.

How do I group students?

Now that your students have their reading goals (phonics, fluency, or comprehension), it is time to group them. There are several ways to group students, but I prefer mixing them by reading goal and then reading level.I would start by looking at the students’ phonics assessments. Group students according to the phonics skill they need. Please note that you can group skills together. Do not feel the need to have a separate group for EVERY single phonics skill. For example, if you have two students who need CVC words (level A in the assessment above) and three students who need digraphs (level B), place them in one group. In cases like this, I would always teach the higher skill and perhaps make the lower skill a warm-up for each individual lesson. My lesson progression would look something like this:

Warm-Up: Vowel Sound Review and CVC Word Practice

Instruction – New Sound: SH

Challenge: Two-Syllable Words with SH Sound

Independent Practice: Read CVC Words and SH Words

Of course, your groups are going to be determined by your students’ needs, but I wanted to provide you with an example. Please note that the column “Assessment Scores” shows the phonics level where the student stopped the assessment. This would be considered that student’s instructional level.

Here is a sample class:

StudentAssessment ScoresReading GroupGoals
1Phonics Level COrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
2Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 70 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
3Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
4Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 58 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
5Phonics Level C
No Automaticity; Struggled with Blending
RedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs
6Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
7Phonics Level ARedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs and Review CVC
8Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
9Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
10Phonics Level EPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
11Phonics Level ARedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs and Review CVC
12Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
13Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
14Phonics Level EPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
15Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 50 wcpm; decoding each word
GreenFluency Passages
16Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
17Phonics Level BRedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs
18Phonics Level FPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
19Passed Phonics Assessment
Struggled with Two-Syllable Words
PurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
20Phonics Level COrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
21Phonics Level COrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
22Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 63 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
23Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs
24Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
25Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 75 wcpm; no pauses
GreenFluency Passages
26Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 68 wcpm; no expression
GreenFluency Passages
27Phonics Level FPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
28Phonics Level EPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
29Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 58 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
30Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
Book Clubs

Notice that my groups above are not equal. This is another misconception in my opinion. Groups do not need to be exactly even. They should be based on data. If your class happens to be evenly separated based on reading goals and scores, then no problem, but do not place a student in the wrong group just because you would like to keep the groups even in size. Your groups will eventually change anyways as students make progress.

According to the table above, I have 4 students in my intervention group (red), 7 students in my near grade-level group (orange), 6 students in my grade-level group (purple), 7 students who no longer need phonics instruction (green), and 6 students who are currently working above grade-level (blue). For each group, I have selected a goal and an activity for our targeted intervention time. Sometimes called “Response to Intervention”, or RTI, this is a time during the day when students are all working towards their own goals. Note that not all groups are going to receive the same amount of teacher time. In the next section, I will go over how to make these “centers” work:

How do I run differentiated literacy centers? Is it manageable?

The first several weeks of literacy centers should be dedicated to training. I would start with your advanced learners. I recommend training them to either participate in Reading Workshop or Book Clubs. (NOTE: The linked blog posts were written with upper-grade teachers in mind, but the same ideas can be used in the primary grades. If you would like to brainstorm ideas, feel free to write a comment on this post or email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would be more than happy to help!) Once this group is trained, they will be able to run Reading Workshop or Book Clubs on their own. I would plan on having a quick check-in with them once a week or perhaps even once every other week.

After blue group has been trained, I would recommend training the green group. I suggest having a targeted fluency lesson with this group perhaps once or twice a week. The other days can be dedicated to fluency practice with partners. If you are looking for some NO-PREP fluency passages, check these out! There are themed passages for every month of the year, and each theme includes 6 different passages (4 levels each passage). HUGE TIME SAVER!!!

The rest of the groups are phonics groups. I suggest meeting with these groups every day for 20 minutes each. (If you cannot find 60 minutes to dedicate to intervention, perhaps meet with orange/purple groups every other day.) While you are meeting with each group, the other students can work on these ready-made activities. The instructions are recorded on the digital Nearpod lessons.

*If you are new to using Nearpod, make sure to watch this webinar. I gave this webinar during the pandemic while schools were closed, but a lot of the ideas shared can be used in-person, as well.

Literacy centers do not have to be as daunting as they seem. I truly hope that this post has helped you take that first step towards differentiated centers. Again, I know how time-consuming planning these centers can be. I have a resource that includes hundreds of activities, passages, and pretty much anything you could need to meet the learning needs of your students. Make sure to check it out!

Should you have any questions or just want to share how your literacy rotations are going, feel free to either comment below or email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would love to hear from you!!!

Other Blog Posts Your May Enjoy

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Using Nearpod to Differentiate Phonics InstructionLearn how to incorporate Nearpod into your phonics rotations. These ideas can be used inside or outside the classroom!

The 5 Ws of Differentiated Instruction

Listen to the podcast episode.

EVERY student can learn just not on the same day or in the same way.

-George Evans

Differentiated instruction is such a buzzword in the educational realm. As educators, we know its importance, but when was the last time we actually dove into what it is and what it looks like in a living, breathing classroom? Well…today is the day!

As many of you know, I love teaching! It is my true passion, and although I could talk about virtually any subject related to teaching, differentiation is by far my favorite. To me, teaching is perhaps the most challenging yet rewarding profession we could have. It requires dedication, analytical skills, and creativity. All three of these are essential to successfully incorporating differentiated instruction into your classroom.

In this blog post, we are going to tackle the 5 Ws of differentiated instruction: Who? What? When? Why? and… How? Okay, so I replaced the Where with How, but as teachers…the how is possibly the most challenging question to answer when it comes to differentiation. Before we get into the logistics of differentiation, let’s first explore the Why…


The better question is Why not?

Meeting the needs of individual students in our classrooms is simply best practice. We have the daunting task of ensuring that all 30+ students in our classrooms make progress and are ready for the next grade level, college, and ultimately their future careers.

Even though we as educators always have the best intentions and always have our students’ best interests at heart, there are some roadblocks when it comes to differentiating our instruction. First, I would just like to say that differentiation is NOT easy. Trust me, if you are reading this blog and feeling a bit anxious or overwhelmed, you are not alone. It took me years to get to the point where I am comfortable differentiating every subject on any given day. I am here to help, but first, let’s address some common concerns…

Differentiation requires too much prep time.

Differentiated instruction, when done right, requires only as much prep time as you desire. Meaning?… It is completely up to you how you differentiate. As we will discuss later in this blog post, a differentiated lesson does not always mean unique activities for every small group or individual student. You can differentiate your instruction simply by asking different questions to different groups or altering how you deliver instruction. You can also allow for student choice when it comes to assessing the learning targets.

Differentiation eats away at instructional minutes.

Although there is something to be said for rotations, differentiated instruction does not always need to come in the form of learning stations. The rotation model is an option, but often requires a bit more time. In other words, students do not need to rotate from one station to another every time you want to differentiate your instruction. In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that you should not meet with every student for an equal amount of time. Some students will need more teacher support, while others will benefit from independent learning time and/or partner work. In sum: spend more time with the students who need you.

Differentiation needs extra money and resources.

Truth be told…does differentiation benefit from said money and resources? YES!!! No school or teacher is ever going to turn down funding; however, you can differentiate on a very tight budget. For example, any given curriculum will include suggestions for English language learners, scaffolding, and enrichment. Classwork and/or homework problems will naturally progress from easy questions to more challenging ones. Rather than have every student answer all 20 questions, for instance, be selective about the questions they do answer. The same is true for your lessons. Rather than do several examples for your entire class, choose 2 or 3 examples that specifically meet the needs of the students you are teaching in a small group. Trust me, once you get into this routine, it will flow seamlessly, and your students will benefit from it.

Differentiation does not address the needs of higher learners.

Sometimes differentiation gets confused with scaffolding. Scaffolding is when we as teachers provide support to help students slowly master a standard. This may be breaking down a math problem into steps or providing more teacher time or perhaps even teaching foundational skills first. Although scaffolding is part of differentiation, it is not the same thing. Differentiation meets the needs of ALL students, including our advanced learners.

Differentiation is only suitable in the primary grade levels.

Upper-grade teachers, this is for you! As I mentioned before, it is not critical to use station rotations. In the upper grades, I would encourage you to move away from this model. It is not that I do not like learning stations, but I know that the lessons we teach in upper grades are often time-consuming. Thus, it is more manageable to use choice boards or task charts. Stay tuned for how I use math task charts to differentiate upper-grade math. I will write a blog post about it next month!


Differentiation is for ALL students. When grouping students, it is important to use an assessment tool that can be taken again every 6-8 weeks. These groups are flexible, meaning that students will move groups based on their progress. For me, I aim to have 4-5 groups in ELA and math. In the table below, I have listed the groups in order from the ones that need the most support (top) to the ones that need more enrichment (bottom). My groups are as follows:

Red (ELA) and Square (Math)This group is for students who are considered at-risk. They are significantly below grade level and often need lessons in foundational skills. As a teacher, provide intervention and scaffolding during this group’s lessons.
Orange (ELA) and Triangle (Math)This group is slightly below grade level. They are able to access grade-level content with scaffolding and support. I recommend checking-in with this group and giving more examples during your lessons.
Purple (ELA) and Trapezoid (Math)This group is able to access grade-level material but sometimes benefits from seeing a lesson more than once. I suggest including a brief review of the previous lesson as their warm-ups. Provide scaffolding as needed. This group may especially benefit from partner work.
Green (ELA) and Diamond (Math)This group is at grade-level. They are able to master grade-level standards with minimal scaffolds. I have found that many curriculums are written with this group in mind. For more challenging lessons, I recommend allowing this group to do partner work for a little extra support.
Blue (ELA) and Circle (Math)This group is made up of the advanced or gifted learners. They often learn new skills very quickly. They do not need many examples to master a new standard. Their lessons should be quick and to the point, so they can spend more time on enrichment activities and/or projects. I recommend incorporating a “flipped classroom”. Students can learn independently (online programs or videos) and go to you for a quick check-in. Be on the lookout for a future post about how to incorporate the “flipped classroom” model in your own classroom!

Please keep in mind that students will be in different groups for ELA and math. For example, a struggling reader may be very successful in math and vice-versa. This is especially true for students with learning disabilities and language learners. A student may also have different levels within various math domains. For example, a student may struggle with fractions but has a solid understanding of geometry. For math, I recommend giving a pre-assessment before each domain.


Ahhh…a seemingly easy question: What is differentiated instruction? I like to look at this often used yet misunderstood term as such:

A teacher can provide differentiated instruction by…

  • Varying WHAT is taught
  • Varying WHEN or how quickly a skill is taught
  • Varying HOW students are taught it

Simply put…differentiated instruction is changing your instruction to meet individual student needs.

You have control over WHAT is taught. Although we do have to teach our grade-level standards, you can control what standards to expand/combine/eliminate (if too easy). Perhaps in one group you review foundational skills on day 1 and then take 2 days to teach one standard. While with a different group, you combine two standards to teach in one day and provide an enrichment activity for the other two days.

You also have control over WHEN something is taught. You can teach the same lesson to 4 groups of students but change the length of each group’s lesson. OR You can teach your advanced learners every other day, combining lessons as needed. Repeat after me: you do not need to teach every student for the same amount of time every day. It is your choice. This concept may feel uncomfortable at first, but it will make all the difference.

Last, you can decide HOW something is taught. For one group, perhaps you use manipulatives, and for a different group, maybe you draw models. Perhaps some students learn best in partners or small groups, while others benefit from quiet, independent learning. You can also use different online tools for each group. My point is that you can quickly cater to the individual needs of your students simply by changing the delivery format. TIP: You may also want to differentiate your assessments. Perhaps allow for some student choice. This could be an entirely separate blog post, so I will save that for another day.


Differentiated instruction can take place in every single part of the day. What?! Yes, every part!!! If you are just dipping your toes into the waters of differentiation, perhaps trying one subject at a time. I recommend starting with math. Teach math in small groups. You may even want to consider splitting the class in half. Teach the students who are below grade level first while the more advanced learners watch a video online (flipped classroom model). I recommend teaching the first group for 75% of your math block. Then, do a quick check-in with your advanced learners. I will write about this model in great detail in an upcoming blog post.

After feeling confident with math, differentiate ELA. This may come in the form of Reading Workshop or even reading groups. For me, I highly recommend incorporating Reading Workshop into your classroom. It is very engaging and is meant for differentiated instruction. If you are new to Reading Workshop, read this post to learn how to get started in 5 easy steps.

Last, add in some time specifically for targeted intervention. This is when you meet with students to teach foundational skills. If students need a specific skill to master an upcoming lesson, meet with those students a few days before the lesson during your intervention time. Over time, it will make all the difference in the world. In my classroom, we dedicate an hour of intervention time. I meet with my at-risk readers for the first 30 minutes, and then teach a writing lesson to the students who are near grade-level. I sometimes use this time to meet with language learners. Meanwhile, the other students are working on either grade-level standards or ongoing enrichment activities. I will go into detail about this block of time in a future blog post.


Now, the big question…How can we differentiate? I would like to sum up what we have covered over the course of this post.

Differentiate your instruction in 5 easy steps…

  1. Assess your students in BOTH ELA and math.
  2. Review the data and separate your students into 4 or 5 groups in ELA and 4 or 5 groups in math.
  3. Start with math. Split the class in half, teaching the groups with students who need more support first. Differentiate by offering longer lessons with more scaffolding to the kids who need it. Use the “flipped classroom” method with your grade-level and advanced learners.
  4. Incorporate Reading Workshop into your classroom. This is an easy way to differentiate. I’ll teach you!
  5. Add in a block of time specifically for intervention.

Now that we have really examined what differentiated instruction looks like in the classroom, we are ready to dive-in head first! In my next blog post, we will specifically look into differentiating your literacy centers. Although I will focus on primary grades, I will also give some ideas for upper-grade teachers. The following post will focus on math blocks, specifically what small-group learning looks like in my upper-grade classroom. Since I have taught both upper grades and primary grades, I hope to share ideas for all elementary school teachers. I can’t wait to continue this journey with you. Until next time…

Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Started

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s GuideLearn how to incorporate phonics instruction, fluency passages, and technology into your literacy centers.
Upper-Grade Math: To Rotate or Not To Rotate? – will post on February 4Learn how to differentiate your math instruction by incorporating task charts.

Community Circles: Combining SEL and Classroom Community

Taking the time to build community, to get to know your people will have long-lasting benefits.

-Clifton Taulbert

Ah…SEL… sometimes I feel like we have a love-hate relationship. It’s not that I don’t see the importance of explicitly teaching social and emotional skills. In fact, quite the opposite! As educators, our ultimate goal is to help our students become kind, well-rounded human beings who will benefit our future society. This means SEL should make up part of our curriculum. The reason I have a tough time with this is there is simply too much to teach in a day. Who’s with me? Between all of the pull-outs and the never-ending list of standards, it is very difficult to find the time to add anything to our day.

This is why I like to combine subject matter or activities and get the most “bang for my buck” if you will. For SEL at the start of the year, I teach mini-lessons based on my favorite picture books. These mini-lessons act as our language arts curriculum. We use Thinking Maps, hold classroom discussions, and even answer a few writing prompts. But, what can you do during the rest of the year? After all, SEL should be an integral part of the whole year, not just the first two weeks of school.

Well, that’s where community circles come into play. Morning meeting, which is another great activity to build classroom community, is very similar to community circles. So, the good news is that if you currently start your day with morning meeting, you can easily combine SEL with your current routine.

How do you run a community circle?

First, let me just say that in upper grade, I always have students run community circles and morning meetings. (Honestly, I would even do this in primary grades. I would just spend more time modeling it first.) This is where you get the buy-in! At the start of the day during our Morning Routine, the student in charge of community circles looks through our box of sharing questions and chooses two of them to display on our whiteboard. This way, the class knows what we will be sharing that day.

As far as choosing who is in charge of community circles, you can have it be one of your classroom jobs. I typically have teacher’s assistant or a separate morning meeting manager run community circles. (This ends up being one of the most popular jobs. So many kids apply for it because they love running these meetings!) Alternatively, you could take turns. Depending on how many students want a turn, you could rotate through students every other day, every week, or every month. The choice is yours!

Once it is time for your community circle, the student in charge dismisses the rest of the class to sit in the meeting area. (Make sure to have a designated place in or outside your classroom for your meeting area.) The student then shares the first question and reminds the class of the rules or expectations. I always allow 30 seconds of “think time” before sharing begins. (I recommend using a timed song to help manage time. Read more about how to use timed music for classroom management here.)

After 30 seconds of “think time”, every student takes a turn answering the first sharing question. Remind students to keep it short! They are answering in a short sentence rather sharing their life stories. 😛 Although it would be wonderful for every student to say as much as they want, it is simply not feasible when you have 30+ students in your class. It is of course your choice how much time you can allot for sharing, but I usually remind students to keep it brief. After everyone shares, repeat the process with a second or third sharing question.

What is the difference between morning meeting and community circles?

Many of you may be wondering what is the difference between community circles and morning meetings? Let me just say that these two activities are very similar, especially when comparing their goals. They both are used to build classroom community and are the perfect way to teach SEL throughout the year. The main difference is in their procedures. Morning meetings typically incorporate games and some kind of message from the teacher. Teachers often also use morning meetings to go over the daily schedule and/or objectives. Community circles, however, just focus on the sharing aspect of morning meetings. They can also lend themselves to restorative circles once students are comfortable with the routine.

Since this blog post is primarily focused on community circles, I would like to take a moment to at least mention the four steps of a typical morning meeting. That way, you can combine these two ideas into one should you wish to do so.

A traditional morning meeting includes four steps:

  • Morning Message: This step can be done at the beginning, end, or middle, depending on your activity for the day. During morning message, the teacher shares the daily schedule and/or objectives. Typically, this message is written, allowing for some editing/revising lessons. Depending on your grade level, you may want to demonstrate proper grammar and write the message in front of your class. Another idea is to share an inspirational quote. This could be chosen by the teacher or the student in charge of the meeting.
  • Greeting: Students take turns quickly greeting each other, whether by saying an adjective to describe themselves or good morning in a different language (especially beneficial for EL students to share their home languages). There are a million ways to greet each other; those are just two examples.
  • Sharing: This is almost identical to community circles, so I will go over this step below.
  • Activity: This is some kind of fun game that encourages collaboration and teamwork. One example of a quick activity is having the class line up in order of birthdays without saying a word. This game would also be a great way to teach nonverbal communication. Plus, the students love it!

How can I incorporate SEL into community circles?

Now, that brings us to our main topic for this post: incorporating SEL into community circles. The trick is to build SEL into your community circles over time. You do not want to start with heavy, deep questions before your students get the chance to get to know and trust each other. You want to create a safe, welcoming space before digging deep into personal questions. For my classroom, I look at community circles as a three-step process that encompasses the first half of the school year. My goal is that my students are ready to really dig into deep questions by the time we return from winter break.

1) Getting to Know You Questions

For the first month or so, I use community circles as a way for my students to simply get to know each other. It is also a way for them to get to know me, as I am an active participant in this activity. This is also the time when you teach routines and expectations regarding community circles. Here are a few guidelines that you can teach your students:

  • Everyone shares and participates during this time. Any student is allowed to pass, but they are strongly encouraged to share at the end after the other students have taken their turns. (Please note that I do not believe in forcing students to share, but I do believe in setting the expectation that everyone will at some point participate.)
  • This is a safe space and a judgment-free zone. It is essential to teach students to be open to others’ opinions, even if they are different than their own. I highly recommend teaching students how to respectfully listen and disagree before starting community circles.
  • All participants must actively listen, showing respect at all times. In my class, we actually practice nonverbal ways of showing respect and listening (i.e. nodding occasionally when someone is speaking, facing the speaker with a calm body, not fidgeting, etc.).
  • Only one speaker is allowed to share at a time. (Make sure to have a talking stick or stuffed animal to indicate who is speaking. I cut and laminate the sharing questions, and we use that as the talking stick. Look at the bottom of this blog for a freebie!)

2) Tying Questions Into SEL Mini-Lessons

Now that your students are comfortable with each other, we can start incorporating some SEL lessons into our community circles. I start by tying our sharing questions to the lessons I taught at the beginning of the school year. These lessons are connected to picture books and can easily be revisited throughout the school year.

The reason I begin with these questions is that the students already have some background knowledge. The read alouds, book activities (freebie alert), and classroom discussions provide the students a starting point. Here are a few sharing questions that directly connect with the picture books in my blog post linked above:

  • The Day You Begin
    • When have you ever felt a little different? How did you feel?
    • What could you do to help someone else feel included?
  • The Magical Yet
    • Name one short-term and one long-term goal for this school year.
    • Name a time you overcame a challenge.
    • Why is having a positive attitude critical to our success?
    • What can you do to make progress towards a goal today?
  • Songbird
    • What is your biggest dream?
    • What do you want to do when you grow up?
    • How can you accomplish your goals?
    • How can you support someone while they try to accomplish their goals?
    • How can you be a supportive classmate?
  • Listen
    • What does it mean to actively listen?
    • How can we show we are listening?
    • Why is listening an important skill in class? When building friendships?
  • After the Fall
    • How do you feel when you make a mistake?
    • What can you do after making a mistake?
    • Discuss a time you learned from a mistake.
    • Why are mistakes learning opportunities?

3) Digging Deep

As mentioned earlier, community circles can even lend themselves to restorative justice. This could be a completely separate blog post, but I think it is definitely worth a brief introduction in this one. The “why” for restorative justice is simple: everyone makes mistakes. Granted, some mistakes are bigger and more impactful than others, but they are still mistakes. This is especially true for kids!

I once saw a video that really resonated with me. It stated that when a child does not know how to add, we teach them. If a child does not know how to ride a bike or swim, we teach them. But, when a child does not know how to behave or respectfully communicate, do we teach them or punish them? Unfortunately, the last question is not as easy to answer as the others. As adults, we need to realize that being kind and respectful does not occur naturally. Humans are not born with those skills; they need to be taught.

Que restorative circles! When a child makes a mistake, teach the child how to fix it rather than just assigning a consequence. (Now, although I am an advocate for restorative justice, I am not completely against consequences. Consequences are a part of life. Adults have them too, and I believe children should learn that their actions sometimes have negative results. I just think that consequences should not make up the sum of behavior management.)

Let’s say a group of students get into an argument at recess. Rather than punishing the entire group and taking away their recess tomorrow, get them together and run a restorative circle. They each get a turn to state how they were feeling in the moment. As the teacher, ask guiding questions, such as how their emotions affected their actions. Did they raise their voices? Did they show their anger in a negative way that upset those around them? After everyone involved has a turn to share, ask them to think about what they could have done to help the situation rather than escalate it.

This takes practice! Be patient with yourself and your students. If you practice this repeatedly, trust me, your students will be better for it. By the end of the year, they will be better at conflict resolution, which is a life-long skill.


Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Ready for Back to School

Picture Books: A Window Into the World of SELRead about my top 5 back-to-school books to help you teach social and emotional skills. (freebie alert!)
10 must-teach classroom routines and procedures to start the year off rightLearn about Morning Routine, classroom management techniques, and so much more!
5 Goals of Reading Workshop:
Is Reading Workshop Effective?
Instill a love of reading in your classroom. Trust me, this is a MUST-READ.

Picture Books: A Window into the World of SEL

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

Vivian Greene

Although SEL, or social-emotional learning, has been around for decades, it has really made headlines in the world of education since the pandemic. We as educators must explicitly teach students how to manage their emotions. Being able to identify specific emotions, as well as what to do with said emotions is a lifelong skill.

A common question from teachers is “What does that look like in the classroom?”. SEL can be used to help students play on the playground while also helping them collaborate in the classroom. Therefore, SEL should be a vital component of our back-to-school curriculum.

Those of you who know me know how strongly I feel about the first two weeks of school. They should be filled with fun activities, routines and procedures, and SEL lessons. In this blog post, we will be looking at five specific picture books that will lend themselves to learning key social-emotional skills that are sure to make this school year a success.

The Day You Begin

Jacqueline Woodson’s “The Day You Begin” is perfect for the first day of school. It reminds us that we all feel like outsiders sometimes. Maybe we are new to the school or maybe we look different than our peers. Perhaps we have different interests or hobbies. Whatever the case may be, it takes courage to meet new people and connect with them.

After reading this book, I like to do an activity about what makes each of us unique. This would also be a good place to discuss identity and values if you so choose. After creating posters, students can introduce themselves to each other, either in small groups or in front of the class. You could even play a round of “Guess Who”. Collect the posters before the students go to recess or lunch and display them somewhere in the room. When students come back, they can guess which poster belongs to which students. (Make sure the students DO NOT write their names on the front of their papers.)

TEACHING TIP: Before hanging up the posters, give students the opportunity to interview each other first. You may want to consider playing Student Bingo first.

Click here to read about Student Bingo and other first week of school activities.

The Magical Yet

“The Magical Yet” by Angela DiTerlizzi is a colorful book that reminds us that all skills at some point were first challenges.

I think this is a perfect book for the first or second day of school. Starting a new grade level in a new classroom with a new teacher can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. This book reminds students that they have overcome challenges many times before. They may have learned to ride a bike or play a sport or learned how to tie their shoes. At one point, everyone has learned something!

This book is a beautiful way to remind them that the challenges they will face this school year can be overcome just as previous challenges were. This book would best be read on a goal-setting day. Give your students the opportunity to not only set academic goals but personal goals, as well. Will they meet a new friend? Befriend someone new to the school? Learn how to play a sport? Help their parents at home? Help take care of their younger siblings? The possibilities are endless.


Jenn Larson’s “Songbird” is an endearing book that teaches kids to dream big, despite all odds. In the story, a small bird dreams not of collecting seeds but of being a conductor. Despite the obvious obstacles, the bird works hard to achieve what seems to be nearly impossible. This book shows students that with determination and support, the possibilities are limitless.

To me, this is the perfect story to read after goal setting. I like to revisit our goals made the day before and choose one to make even bigger. Maybe instead of befriending one student, we will try to meet one student in each class. Perhaps we can learn one sport and one art skill. Again, there are a lot of possibilities here.

The main goal here is to push students to challenge themselves. This would be a great place to do a quick write. You may even consider journaling with your students. Not only would you be able to have a first writing sample, but you would also learn a bit about your students’ interests and goals.


“Listen” by Gabi Snyder is a lovely book that teaches mindfulness. The main character, a young girl on her way to school, is confronted with the sounds of a busy city.

This picture book can help teach student to focus and eliminate distractions, especially during group time. It can also be used to bring up how to show we are actively listening.

I use this book to teach how to listen, not only to the teacher but to each other, as well. I begin by doing a quick activity where we all close our eyes and see how many different sounds we can hear in our classroom. We list them as a class and discuss how to focus our attention on only the teacher’s voice. We then discuss how we can eliminate distractions to allow us to get the most out of our lessons.

In terms of SEL, we discuss what it means to listen to friends rather than just hear them. We discuss trying to understand a person’s intentions before reacting in a negative light. This would be a good time to bring up nonverbal communication, especially during group time. I usually like to use this picture book before beginning our first collaborative activity.

After the Fall

We all know the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, but have you ever wondered what happened to him afterward?

This adorable book by Dan Santiat describes the struggle Humpty Dumpty endures after taking a terrible fall. The message is that no matter the setback, there is always a way to recover and overcome it.

If I had to recommend one book for back to school, it would be this one. (I have even used this after winter break as a way to remind students what we discussed at the beginning of the year.)

This book has so many applications. Students enter our classrooms with their own unique struggles, traumas, and hardships. This book teaches us that we can overcome any challenge, academic or otherwise, with time, support, and love. In the story, Humpty Dumpty finds that he is terrified of heights after his fall, thereby causing him to miss out on some of the activities he once loved. Similarly, students may have difficulty making friends after being isolated due to the pandemic. They may also struggle to be successful after failing a test or striking out during baseball. Perhaps they were embarrassed on the playground and are extremely shy now. Again, the applications are endless. This book teaches students that it is okay to struggle sometimes. We all struggle sometimes. What we do afterward is what makes us successful.

“After the Fall” is also the perfect way to teach students to be risk-takers and that it is okay to make mistakes. Mistakes are learning opportunities, and this realization does not come naturally to students. Honestly, it does not come naturally to adults either.

A possible follow-up activity could be to have students think of a time when they learned something from a mistake they made. Alternatively, students could design a poster that visually displays the book’s theme or message. I have done this poster activity every year, and you would not believe how beautiful they turn out! I usually like to display them for Back to School Night.

I hope that these picture books help you create a warm, nurturing environment for your new classroom family. Explicitly teaching these skills makes all the difference in the world, not just for this school year but for your students’ entire lives.

I would love to hear your success stories, so feel free to comment below or tag me on Instagram @learningnprogress. Let’s celebrate the beginning of this school year together!!!

Summer Planning in 3 Hours or Less

Oh, how we love summer…a time to rest, a time to reflect, and honestly a time to become human again. We as teachers know how truly exhausting the profession is, and everyone outside of the teaching world just doesn’t get it. I think I can speak for most educators when I say the first month of summer is spent simply recuperating from the school year.

Teachers don’t get summers off; they just collect their overtime.


After the initial phase of summer where I am simply regaining my strength and energy, I am often ready to dive right back into curriculum and start planning for the upcoming year. Well, that’s usually the case…This year, I am finding myself pushing things off until the last possible second. Anyone else with me? This year more than ever I am looking to get the most bang for my buck when it comes to planning.

Cue this blog post…

MY GOAL: to finish my long-term planning in three hours or less

Now, I obviously cannot make copies and plan every detail of every lesson in three hours. However, my goal is to set up my planner and create an outline of my year. I like to break down my summer planning into three tasks:

Teach Love Inspire – I LOVE my Purple Trail teacher planner!

Task 1: Planner Setup

Perhaps one of the most mundane yet necessary steps of setting up your planner is writing in the dates for the school year. I did this for years until I finally splurged and got a pre-dated planner from Purple Trail. What I love MOST about this planner is that everything is customizable. The absolute best option is the pre-dated planner and customized subject headings.

Check out Purple Trail planners here. Use this link to save $10 off your order!

Curious why I LOVE my Purple Trail planner so much? Click here, and I’ll tell ya…

Once the dates are written in, it’s sticker time! I get out my school’s calendar and put in all the important school events: Back to School Night, Open House, Conference Weeks, field trips, minimum dismissals, etc. For me, I use stickers, but you could always just write these dates in, of course. Having these events already in your planner saves heartache down the road.

There was a time I used to add these dates in every month, but I undoubtedly would forget an important event. Then, I would “overplan” on a minimum day, for instance. Although this mistake is not the end of the world, it does get annoying if done often enough.

Teacher Tip: While you are writing the dates in your planner, write the dates on your newsletter templates also! This will save you the hassle of doing it every week. Trust me, it’s worth the time. OR…

Let me do the work for you. You will never have to date another newsletter EVER!!!***

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Task 2: Scope and Sequence

Now that your planner is ready to go, it’s time to long-term plan. It is extremely difficult to fit everything into a school year. Therefore, it is critical to divide the standards and curriculum before the school year begins.

I know this may be debatable, but I stand firm in my opinion. For me, in order to be most effective, I need to know what I will be teaching next. I think it is even important for students to know what they will be learning next.

For example, when I teach my students how to infer, I explain to them that they will need this skill in order to analyze the theme of a text. That way, by the time we get to theme, they are already well aware that inferencing is needed. It helps to “warm up their brains” to this concept.

In order to be able to teach in such a way, you as the educator must know your year-long plans like the back of your hand.

When I sit down to plan, I start with math. I look over each unit and determine which units are most essential and will be the most challenging for students. (It may be helpful to look at your students’ data from the previous school year. Are there any gaps in their learning that will need to be addressed?) I then assign a total number of weeks for each unit. NOTE: I recommend taking one week per unit test if you are planning on giving second chance tests and intervention days.

Once the weeks have been assigned, spread the units out over the school year, taking into account school breaks, holidays, field trips, and other school events. UPPER-GRADE TEACHERS: Make sure to plan around state testing! You will need to finish the essential standards beforehand. Leave the non-essential standards, or standards that will be reviewed in the next grade level, for after testing.

Rinse and repeat for the other subjects you teach! It usually takes me around 15 minutes per subject, if that. If you are new to your grade level, it may take you a bit longer. The good news is you can always use the same scope and sequence for years to come!!!

Task 3: First Week Plans

The last task for our summer planning session is to plan the first week of school. The first week of school should be filled with “getting to know you” activities, classroom community games, and a ton of SEL! Pandemic or not, my opinion has always remained the same: curriculum does not belong in the first two weeks of school. Routines and procedures, yes. Standards, no. Perhaps you can include some foundational skills during the second week but definitely not during the first.

If you typically start teaching right away, this idea may seem a bit daunting to you, but trust me, building a strong classroom community filled with learners who feel loved, welcomed, and excited is worth every minute. The rest of the school year will thank you for taking the time to build such a strong learning environment.

I am not going to go into detail about various activities, as I have already written a detailed blog post about them. However, I do want to mention what a typical first week of school looks like in my classroom. No matter the grade level, I always include the following activities every day during that first week:

  • “Getting to Know You” Activity – All About Me, I Wish My Teacher Knew, Reading Preferences, etc
  • Student Ice Breaker – These are fun!
  • Teamwork Activity – I love PBL (project-based learning) tasks. I often teach one skill per day, such as how to respectfully disagree, how to be a strong leader, how to split up tasks, etc. Looking for ideas? Check these out!
  • SEL Read Aloud and Reflection – Picture books are NOT just for primary grades. They can be used to teach skills such as perseverance, respect, friendship, and so much more! During the first week, no matter what grade I am teaching, I end the day with a picture book read aloud. We then do a quick activity to practice applying the book’s message to our classroom. This activity comes in the form of a discussion, drawing, or quick write. Sometimes, I will even use what they created in a Gallery Walk the next morning. I am currently compiling a list of books and ideas that you can use during the first couple weeks of school. BLOG POST COMING SOON!!!

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling much more prepared for the school year already. The best part? I am feeling prepared without being overwhelmed!

Our next blog post will post on August 21 and will cover SEL picture books and activities you can use during your first two weeks of school. Make sure to check it out!

Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Ready for Back to School

Setting Up Your Classroom: 10 Must-Dos for Any Upper-Grade TeacherWho doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned classroom reveal?!
5 First Week of School Activities Your Upper Graders Will LoveDiscover ideas and downloadable freebies for the first week of school!
10 must-teach classroom routines and procedures to start the year off rightIncludes Ideas for the
Second Week of School
5 Goals of Reading Workshop:
Is Reading Workshop Effective?
Instill a love of reading in your classroom. Trust me, this is a MUST-READ.

The Ultimate Summer Reading List for Elementary School Teachers

The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.

B.B. King

One of the many reasons I enjoy being a teacher is that I absolutely love to learn! Educators are the ultimate lifelong learners…we learn about our standards, our students, the most effective and up-to-date teaching practices, intervention and differentiation strategies…the list goes on and on…

Although as teachers, we will never run out of skills to learn, during the school year, it is simply hard to find the time. Raise your hand if that last statement resonates with you. (Every teacher’s hand shoots in the air.) The truth is that it is extremely difficult to juggle all aspects of the teaching profession. We wear so many hats! Because of this, I usually choose one professional development book to dig into over summer break.

I know what you’re thinking…summer break is a time to recuperate, a time for friends and family, a time to regain the strength needed for the upcoming school year. I get it, and trust me, I am right there with you! (Notice that I am writing this post well into July, when my summer break began early June. LOL) After spending some time completely unplugged from school, I find I am ready to slowly bring back thinking about my classroom. Now is about that time. With that being said, let’s dig into my top three book selections for any elementary school teacher.

The Big Book by Rick Morris

Rick Morris has compiled several of his books into one BIG BOOK. Trust me, this will completely change the dynamic of your classroom.

Click here to read more. (I am not affiliated with his company, but I really do love the strategies in this book.)

If I were to recommend ONLY ONE book for any teacher, it would be this one. To me, Rick Morris is the classroom management guru. Let me tell you a little about how I first learned about Rick Morris…

Needless to say, I am now a HUGE fan of his strategies. I highly recommend reading the entire book, but I realize that there may not be enough time to read it all before the start of this school year. Therefore, I have compiled a few of my favorite tips and tricks from his book:

  • Extra Time Chart: This is often called a “must do, may do list”. In my classroom, we call it the E.T. Chart. Students work on the assignments listed on the E.T. Chart whenever they finish any given task. The chart is divided into three sections: red, yellow, and green. The red portion is for assignments that are mandatory. For us, they are also the assignments that are due by Friday. Students who finish all of their work by Friday, are invited to “Fun Friday” which is 30 minutes of free time and/or game time. The yellow portion lists 2-3 ongoing practice assignments. It could be independent reading, journal writing, or a lesson from an online platform. The choice is yours! The green section is comprised of fun, educational games and activities. This is essentially free choice for students who have finished everything. (I highly recommend including educational items.) I have found that it is best to have some way to hold the students accountable. For example, they can move their student number on a chart to show which section (red/yellow/green) they are currently working on.
  • Transition music: This is a must must must for any grade level! Rick Morris believes that teachers talk way too much. Can you think of a time when you got frustrated because you had to repeat yourself 10,000 times! I know I can! This is especially true when giving out directions. T: Take out your math notebook. S: Which notebook? T: math Another S: Math textbook? T: No, math notebook Another student: Is that all we need? T: I SAID TAKE OUT YOUR MATH NOTEBOOK! We’ve all been there, right? To eliminate this endlessly frustrating experience, use music and a dry erase marker. Simply choose one song to use during your transitions between one activity and another. Train your students to stop and look up at the whiteboard whenever they hear this music. While the music is playing, simply write all of the materials you want the students to take out on the whiteboard. For example, in my classroom, when we transition to math, I write “math notebook, pencil, dry erase supplies” on the board. My students then know to put everything else away and to only have out the supplies listed on the whiteboard. Trust me, this strategy will completely transform your classroom!
  • Post-it notes for small group learning: Imagine this…you have planned an engaging small group lesson. You have your materials ready and have finally set aside time for dedicated intervention. You call over your most at-risk students and begin teaching. As soon as you have their undivided attention, another student walks up and has a question. It turns out they just needed another pencil. Uugh! You begin teaching again, and a different student walks up because s/he needs to use the restroom. And so the cycle continues…Before you know it, your intervention time has ended and you never even taught the core part of the lesson. We’ve all been there. Two solutions: one is post-it notes. The other I will discuss next. Post-it notes! During small group time, have a pad of post-its and pencils nearby. Students may write a question on the post-it and place it next to you. They then return to their desks until you are ready to answer the questions. This is a life-saver! I know what you’re thinking…won’t students be constantly writing on post-its? There is a way to avoid this! Read on!!!
  • Hand gestures: This is an oldie but a goodie. Use hand gestures so students can quietly ask to use the restroom, drink water, ask a question, make a comment, etc. This way, you can silently excuse students by simply waving your hand, pointing, or nodding your head. This will prevent your teaching from being constantly interrupted. This is true for both whole group and small group learning.

There are so many more strategies in the book, but the ones listed above are my favorites. If you want to read more about what these strategies look like in my own classroom, check out this back to school blog post: 10 Must-Teach Classroom Routines and Procedures to Start the Year Off Right.

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Reluctant readers? Read this book, and ALL of your questions will be answered! How do I get my students to love reading? How can I change a reluctant reader to an active and engaged one? This book absolutely transformed my literacy instruction and my classroom library. I highly recommend you checking it out, especially if you are an upper grade teacher!

Donalyn Miller explains how she turns any reader at any level into a lover of books! If you have ever heard of the “40 book challenge”, this is where it comes from. The book goes into detail about how you can use this challenge to get your students to read 40 books in a year! Yes, you read that right…40 books!!!

Basically, the major takeaway of this book is that we should encourage students to select their own books, set aside time to talk to individual students about their books selections, and set up a classroom environment where students can share their love of reading with each other. I know this sounds like a daunting task, but it is totally doable. Donalyn Miller does not only outline how to create such a classroom; she will actually make you excited about your own classroom library and literacy instruction.

I have written several blog posts on setting up your classroom library, launching reading workshop, and even managing book clubs. Although I have put my own spin on some of these ideas, many of my strageies were inspired by Donalyn Miller.

Looking to get started but don’t have time to create/prep? This resource has everything you need to run Reading Workshop!

Literacy Instruction Blog Posts

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
Launch Reading Workshop in 5 Easy StepsFrom organization ideas to tips on helping students select books, this blog post includes everything you need to get started on Reading Workshop.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Reading Workshop: Book Clubs DiscussionsFacilitate student-run book club meetings in 3 easy steps!

Teach Like a Champion

Teach Like a Champion has SO MANY teaching strategies. It was definitely difficult to narrow them down. I was able to choose my favorite strategies and describe them below, though a couple of them are closely related to techniques covered in Rick Morris’s Big Book.

  • Check for Understanding/Exit Ticket: This is an important technique for student understanding. In my lessons, I make sure to include both a check for understanding question, as well as an exit ticket. The check for understanding question is a question the students answer independently and then show me the answer immediately. I typically ask them to rate their confidence level, as well. (4/3/2/1) If students get the answer correct and are at a 4 or 3, they are excused to start their exit ticket. The exit ticket is a more in-depth look at the new skill. They complete the exit ticket independently, and I check it after school. The exit tickets guide my instruction for the next lesson. (Occassionally, I will allow my intervention kids to work with a partner if the skill is particularly challenging.)
  • Cold Call / Call and Response: Cold calling students is not a new technique by any means. However, I feel that this book gives several new ideas to traditional cold calling students. (Cold calling is when a teacher pulls a student’s name to answer a question rather than just taking volunteers.) The idea is that this strategy holds students accountable and increases engagement. There are several students who tend to avoid volunteering answers. This strategy allows for them to be heard. Read the next strategy, No Opt Out, for ideas on how to make cold calling less daunting for students. Call and response is a strategy where the entire class or even small groups of students are asked to respond together. This increases engagement but is not putting any one student on the spot. It often feels less nerve-wracking for students who are shy or need support with language/academics.
  • No Opt Out: This is a teaching technique that is also discussed in Rick Morris’s Big Book, though I did not cover it earlier. The idea is that students are required to answer a question rather than not volunteer at all or simply say “I don’t know”. Rather, students may say “Please come back to me.” This way, they are now re-engaged in the classroom discussion. They will be actively listening to their peers and teacher, so they will have an answer when the teacher asks them again after another student(s) shares. This can be used in conjunction with cold calling. This takes the pressure off being called. The important part of this strategy is to make sure not to put students on the spot. As tempting as it may be to remind students to pay attention, this may cause some embarrassment. Simply say, “No problem. We will come back to you after a couple students.” This helps make that students more comfortable being called upon.
  • Wait Time/100 Percent: These two ideas go hand-in-hand in my opinion. I personally like having opportunities for students to volunteer answers. I do not rely on cold calling and call/response all the time. For the times I take volunteers, I make sure to avoid calling students immediately after asking a question. You will always have a handful of students that are eager beavers. As teachers, these students make us excited to teach! However, we want to encourage the rest of the class to join in on the learning. Otherwise, they will simply wait for those few students to answer. In turn, they will learn to disengage from the lessons and classroom discussions. After asking a question, I will “guesstimate” the percentage of students raising their hands. “I see 60% of the class engaged…Now, I see 75%…ooo now 90%! Let’s go for 100%!” Students do not need to be able to calculate percentages in order to understand 100 is good. I have used this stragey with several grade levels, and every year, it is very effective. I have even put up a 100% chart and colored in part of it every time we reach 100% participation. Teacher tip: I only use this strategy after Think-Pair-Share or group/partner work. That way, students have the opportunity to learn from each other before being asked to volunteer an answer. This is also a great way to encourage participation for opinion questions or topics that do not have a right/wrong answer.
  • Entry Routine/Do Now: Awww, routines…my favorite subject. Routines are so critical for smooth classroom management. This is especially true at the start and end of the day. For the purposes of this post, we will focus on the Morning Routine. Every morning in my classroom, students unpack, check-in for attendance, and start their morning work. This gets students ready for the day and focused on their learning. This also allows the teacher to complete morning responsibilities (i.e. attendance, lunch count, answering student questions, homework help, etc.). To read more about morning/afternoon routines, read this blog post: 10 Must-Teach Classroom Routines and Procedures to Start the Year Off Right.
  • SLANT: SLANT is a simple acronym that I use regularly during my lessons. It reminds students to actively listen during instruction. It stands for Sit Up, Listen, Pay Attention, Nod Your Head (show you’re listening), and Track the Teacher.
  • Every Minute Matters/On Your Mark: This is an important one: EVERY minute counts. At the start of the school year, I actually have my upper graders calculate how much time in one year would be wasted if we did nothing for 5 minutes a day. They are always surprised by the amount of instructional minutes that can add up. For this reason, we strive to use every minute of the school day for learning. Thus, we do not waste time in our classroom. As discussed earlier, the E.T. Chart addresses this ideal. During instruction, the strategy “On Your Mark” comes into play. For any given task, whether it be a quick partner discussion, an exit ticket, or a check for understanding question, I always give a specific amount of time. When I say specific, I MEAN SPECIFIC. For example, during a warm-up or hook, I may pose a discussion question to the class. I will then instruct students to share their responses with their table partners, specifically giving them 1.5 minutes to discuss. I also remind them to make sure to have an answer ready, as we will randomly take students to respond afterward. This technique is not meant to rush students, but it does put some “pep in their step”. If students know they have a limited time, they will get started right away. Trust me, this will help you get the most bang for your buck during instruction!
  • Tight Transitions / Seat Signals: I grouped these two ideas together because they are very similar to the ideas shared in Rick Morris’s Big Book. First, tight transitions refer to making sure the transition between centers, activities, or subjects takes as little time as possible. As discussed earlier, using music allows you as the teacher to dictate the appropriate amount of time for such a transition. For example, I usually allow 2 minutes for in-between subjects. This gives students time to switch out their supplies while not giving them enough time to mess around or talk to their friends. In addition, I make sure they know exactly what to do should they have extra time. For my classroom, the expectation is that they are writing down the title/date/question from the board while they wait. As discussed earlier, seat signals have hand signals for restroom/water/pencils/tissues, etc. Basically, it is a way for students to communicate their needs without interrupting instruction.

There you have it…my top three book selections that will change your classroom. These books will transform your classroom into a well-oiled machine where students are not only on-task but love to learn! I cannot emphasize enough what these books have done for my teaching practice. I hope that you find them as beneficial as I have.

If you are looking for some more Back to School ideas, click here. Also, feel free to comment on my posts and share what has worked in your own classrooms!!! I love collaborating with other teachers and hearing about your successes. Let’s learn from each other!

Stay tuned for more teaching ideas on this blog or tune in to the Learning N Progress podcast. Thank you for being a part of our community, and keep learning!!!

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