To Tweet or Not to Tweet…

Good question!

Although I have long been interested in using Twitter in the classroom, it has taken me quite a while to get started.  I find it difficult to work with so few characters! I also have trouble figuring out what is tweetworthy.  What could possibly be important enough to blast out to so many people?  What I’ve found is that students appreciate tweets about most anything.

Kids love to see pictures of themselves.  They love posing during events and being in candid shots during lessons.  Making thought bubbles that can be attached to a wooden dowels is a great way to incorporate questions and comments.

Links to websites, news stories, and on-line games are a great way to create a hook for lessons.  One tweet to the official movie trailer for The Giver caused a flurry of excited questions.

Eventually I will move on to student tweets…. Maybe six word narratives?

Follow me @mrssiegs & @ShannonSiegler

Image by Shawn Campbell


New to Tweeting?  Here are some resources that I found useful:

50 Ways to Use Twitter in the Classroom  – Samantha Miller

The Teacher’s Guide To Twitter Edudemic

Hootsuite – An easy way to manage multiple social media accounts


Thank you, Jack!

Jack Berckemeyer taught us this at a NELMS conference.    Kate quickly made up a bunch of sets for both of our classrooms. 

Each group of students gets a set of letter cards. B, D, F, O, P, R, A, S, T, L, H, N; ambiguous M/E/W ; an ambiguous U/C  (If the students figure out that they can flip an ‘ambiguous letter card’ to create a new letter, they may.)  Then you give the students a task, and they get started.

What a great way to review terms for a test, generate word banks, practice with morphemes, etc.!

Check out Jack’s site for free handouts, videos and other resources.

photo 1 (12) photo 2 (12) photo 3 (1)

What an amazing experience!

What an amazing experience!  We visited a Phillip’s Exeter Academy to observe the Harkness method in action.  There was no doubt that the students were 100% engaged in their learning.  We can’t wait to learn more about this method and test it out in public school classrooms.  We are already formulating a plan…

Has anyone had experience using the Harkness Method in a public school?

Seating Challenge – Getting to know your students the first week of school

It’s the first day of school.  Students you’ve never met are nervously milling around the classroom.  Some are getting frustrated and barking orders, some are clustered together chatting about their summers, while others are disconnected and trying not to be noticed. Rather than intervening, you are silently watching,  pointing to the board.

Sound like a nightmare?  It certainly resembles my dreams that start in early August and always include my inability to gain control of various situations.

However, this is what the first day of school has looked like in my classroom for the past three years.  After reading Teaching Secrets: Get to Know Students Through Seating Challenges by Sandy Merz, my colleague Kate and I decided we would give seating challenges a try with our eighth graders.  We chose several of the challenges in the article, tweaking some to make them work in our classrooms, and wrote lesson plans that included a challenge for the first five days of class.

Waiting by Shawn McCullough
Waiting by Shawn McCullough

Why would I choose to begin the year this way ?  There are plenty of  benefits for both students and teacher.

Giving a group challenge helps the students begin to get to know one another from the very beginning.  Often times in middle school we assume students know one another.  However, I find that they rarely know each other well enough to fully participate in an effective learning community.  Needing to immediately work together  means that there is no settling in period.  Students do not have time to be shy, nor let the naturally outgoing students set the climate for the year.  I find that students are often surprised by what they learn about peers who they’d thought they knew well.

Seating challenges also put me on the fast track to learning about my students.  As I observe the group attempt the tasks, it is easy to spot the leaders, the followers, the gregarious students, and the shy ones. A personality of the class begins to emerge. I’ve found it interesting to see that some classes do not have natural leaders, some have too many, some easily work together, and some argue the entire time.  Watching students as they struggled through each task helps me begin to understand students’ ability to follow written directions, communicate effectively, and cope with frustration. The tasks help to set the tone of my classroom by placing value on cooperation, communication, problem-solving and grit.

Processing daily with the students is the most valuable part of the entire experience. First they write in their think books about how they felt while they were doing the task, what helped their class to be successful, and what things they wish they had done better.  Then during a group discussion, we set goals for the next challenge-including time, and cooperation, and communication goals. These conversations naturally flow into setting year-long goals for the class.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned a few strategies to make the process run more smoothly.   Timing the class as they complete each challenge creates a sense of competition -something that adolescents love.  I usually begin posting times on the board the second day.  This creates healthy competition among my classes and helps focus groups who then want to beat their previous times.   I’ve also learned to prepare blank seating charts and post-it tags with student names, so that I can quickly create a seating chart to help me learn names and take notes during the rest of the period.

Giving students a physical copy of the instructions, in addition to posting them on the board, helps the shyer students who would rather figure out what needs to be done in the ‘safety’ of the back of the room.   Carrying a clipboard and taking notes about what I observe sends the message that there is much to be learned from the activity.  I always share my observations and provide feedback. The students appreciate that I am learning about them, and noticing all of them.  The clipboard also allows me to walk around the room. Proximity, even without talking, helps students stay on task.

Even though I know how valuable these challenges can be, I still find it difficult to watch students flounder and not try to help them.  Allowing a group of students I don’t know have free range of the classroom still give me bouts of anxiety.  More than once, Kate has had to reassure me that the students will figure it out.  In the end, they always do.   And even though these challenges take 15-25 precious minutes of the first periods of school, the relationships which are formed, and the insights gained,  justify the time spent.

My eighth-graders really like starting with seating challenges.  I can’t imagine starting the year any other way. I hope you try it. Good luck, I hope you have a great beginning of the new school year.


Get Ready! Get Set! Hit the Classroom Track!

 One of our favorite times of the year is in August as we excitedly prepare for our new group of awkwardly lovable eighth graders to arrive for the first day of school.  As we gear up and begin to plan and prepare for 180 days of jam-packed learning and growing, we embrace the opportunity to reorganize the physical layout of our classrooms in a way that promotes engagement and movement.   Of all the choices in this process, the one we have come to keep constant and strongly encourage you to consider as you set up your own classroom, is “The Track”.

“The Track” is an idea first introduced to me by Tammy Levesque, a consultant from Lakes Region Partnership for Public Health in Laconia , New Hampshire, to promote movement in the classroom.  The idea is to create a path around the perimeter of the classroom (by arranging furniture  a little closer to the center of the room) which can be accessed by students throughout the class/day.

foot traffic by woodleywonderworks
foot traffic
by woodleywonderworks

What’s the point?  “The Track” is a place the whole class can go for a “Follow the Leader” movement break while completing an academic task such as: listening to instructions before a transition,  formulating an argument to defend a position, and/or sharing ideas with a partner.  It can also be used by individual students to get their blood moving or even to read.  (Yes, it’s possible to walk and chew literature!)

My favorite example of the power of the track is with a reluctant reader in my fifth grade classroom several years ago.  An avid athlete, this student was a self-declared hater of reading.  When given the opportunity to read while walking “The Track”, she devoured the entire Harry Potter Series before entering sixth grade!  

At first, Shannon was skeptical about this working at the middle school level, but now she regularly uses the method with her 8th graders.  This year, the students in her first period class preferred to discuss literature, share answers and debate topics on the track.  They said it helped them wake up, and they liked how easy it was to change partners.

It’s important to front-end the introduction of “The Track” with some safety rules about chair legs being pushed in and obeying posted walking speed limits.  And you may want to warn the custodians about the tread marks that will get worn into the carpet- Harry Potter is no walk in the park!  Have fun!

Anyone have any other ideas for setting up your classroom to facilitate movement breaks?

The Play-dough Experiment


Oftentimes we don’t expect to see art projects, or crafts being done in a core content middle school classroom.  In my classroom, the markers and colored pencils would come out for projects, or small group work.  Art was usually incorporated into summative assessments, not used to facilitate thinking during the learning process.   Then I read We Are All Artists by Joshua Block.  In the article he wrote, “The arts allow students to delve more deeply and viscerally into big ideas and discover new ways of thinking and being, as well as helping them undermine the false compartmentalization of different subjects that exists within schools.”  His words got me wondering how I could incorporate art in my classroom.

I got up an extra hour early one morning the week before Spring Break and made a huge batch of no-cook play-dough.   I figured if we were going to use play-dough, we might as well do it during a week when the kids find it difficult to pay attention.  I’d written a lesson plan incorporating Rick Wormeli’s ideas about using metaphors in the classroom.

The students were getting ready to do some writing about their eighth grade experience. They were supposed to reflect on who they were as they first entered the eighth grade, and who they had become. To get their creative juices flowing,  I had students work in small groups to create a play-dough sculpture of something that represented what  eighth graders are like at the beginning of the year. My only caveat was that they could not use any kind of human figure; this helped reinforce creating a metaphor.  I had them do the same thing with an ‘end of year eighth grader’, and told him they would be explaining and defending their choices with the other groups.

I cannot begin to describe how excited, and completely astonished my students were when I pulled out my homemade play-dough.  Their eyes lit up, and they couldn’t wait to get their hands on the dough.  The conversations that followed were amazing.  While they were kneading the dough, they were having quality conversations about how they had grown as students, friends, family members, and athletes.

The group metaphors were creative and thoughtful.  Some of the groups wanted their metaphors to completely relate to each other so they came up with things like a caterpillar and butterfly. Other group’s metaphors were unrelated, yet precisely embodied an eighth-grader at both stages of the year.

Once I had given the groups time to sculpt, the entire class was invited to a gallery walk.  We started in the ‘east wing’ of our museum and moved on through various ‘rooms’ of the museum.   At each cluster of desks, the group the sculptors had to share what they had sculpted and why they felt their metaphor best embodied an eighth-grader.   At each table, feedback was given about the sculptures – not the quality of the artwork, but the quality of the metaphor.

Getting the kids up and moving was exactly what they needed the week before vacation.  They were energized and full of great ideas.  After the gallery walk, I sent them back to their original seats and asked them to individually sculpt the most important thing that they had learned about themselves in eighth grade.   I allowed them to talk to one another while they were working on their sculptures.  As they worked and shared with their group-mates,  I went around the room taking pictures and asking questions.  We concluded with a whole class share.

By that point the students had an entire collection of ideas about the metamorphosis of an eighth grader.  As soon as  I’d explained their writing assignment, I asked them to spend some time brainstorming and make a list of ideas on the back of their papers. Rather than having a bunch of blank stares, I found that even the students who generally take a lot of time to process immediately had ideas to get on their paper.


Whenever I try something new with my students, I always try to take some time to process the experience with them.  I think they appreciate that I value their input, and that I am modeling that I am still a learner who does not do everything perfectly the first time.  I find that eighth-graders always have plenty to say about everything! Some tips they gave me about our play-dough experiment were:

  • Make sure there’s enough flour in the dough so it’s not too sticky.
  • Make sure that you make enough that everyone can have a good-sized piece of play-dough when it’s time to do individual sculptures.
  • Make sure we have enough time to play with the play-dough and get ideas.
  • Don’t freak out so much when you’re giving us directions about what we are/are not allowed to do with the play-dough. 🙂

Even though I had visions of something resembling a food-fight happening in my classroom, I found that the students were excited to be allowed to use play-dough and made sure that they maintained the privilege. Thank you Mr.  Block for inspiring me to use art to facilitate the writing process.  I am excited to find new ways to incorporate art in my lessons!

How do you use art to facilitate thinking in your classroom?

Am I Out of My Mind?!

Okay, I’m thinking we need to bring some relaxation and focusing strategies to our multimedia immersed,  multitasking young students.  I just read this article from Vanderbilt University, Mindfulness in the Classroomand I wonder if we could help students train their minds to concentrate and focus more effectively?  How might this help students with attention disorders?  I know meditation helps me immeasurably.  What do you think of using ancient techniques of mindfulness  as pedagogy in the classroom in this fast paced world?  Any experience?  I’m fascinated and think it could be amazing for the learning brain!

Barrel of Monkeys – Supporting Struggling Writers


Photo by Will Cowan
Photo by Will Cowan

Narrative writing can be a wonderful experience for many students.  However, for some it is a demoralizing reminder of the writing skills they lack.  Sequencing was one skill that I’d incorrectly assumed would be easy to teach.   For years I was baffled by the students who struggled to put a events in order,  and/or who could not seem to generate details to help the reader follow the connection from event to event.

After reading A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach by Ruby Payne I went to hear her speak.   One of the things that Ms. Payne spoke about was that students who come from poverty remember events in the order of emotional importance. This means that the events in their minds may not be in chronological order.  It also means that events of perceived lesser importance may be forgotten. When I thought back to my struggling writers, I realized that often times it was sequencing, and/ or developing the cause and effect details that was hindering their progress as writers. This lead me to the idea of using a Barrel of Monkeys to help my struggling students.

I reasoned students needed a manipulative that would visually suggest a sequential order of events.  The plastic monkeys were perfect.

I remember working with one student in particular.  He was writing a personal narrative about time he learned a valuable lesson.  His narrative consisted of one run-on sentence.   “I got suspended because a kid talked about my mother and I punched him in the face.”

The first thing I did was have him break the sentence into three separate events.  For each event, I gave him one monkey and asked him to put the monkeys in chronological order.  Then I handed him six more monkeys and told him that he needed to add those six monkeys someplace in the story to help me understand how the situation got from ‘monkey to monkey.

I held up his first monkey and asked him how it came to be that the kid started talking about his mother. I wanted to know who did it, when it happened, where it happened, etc..  After thinking, he said that it happened during third grade on the bus.  So I held up one of his ‘extra’ monkeys and told him, “Maybe you should start with you getting on the bus.” That became the first monkey of his story.

We continued  with me asking him questions to help him get to each of his three original events.  Throughout the entire conversation,  I held the chain of monkeys in the air so that he could see how each event resulted in the events that followed.  He quickly surpassed his goal of adding six monkeys and proudly kept track of how many he added.

When he finished, I had him hold the chain and retell the story, touching each monkey as went.   While he spoke, I prompted him as needed and took bulleted-notes.  We were both excited by the extra details that emerged during his retelling.  It was if knowing that he already had a story that made sense helped him to relax enough to flesh it out.  This retelling gave me plenty of opportunities to provide feedback and ask questions.

He was much more prepared to write his personal narrative after this experience.  Not only was he more confident about the story itself, he’d had time to reflect on what he’d learned from the experience.  He was very proud that his original one-sentence story had expanded into a short narrative of roughly twenty sentences that included sensory details, dialogue, and a reflection.

I am sure that Post-it notes, magnets,  jellybeans, or  matchbox cars could also be used for this activity. I use the Barrel of Monkeys because they are a simple, visual reminder that events in a story must connect to the preceding and following events.


A place for educators to share, learn and inspire.

%d bloggers like this: