Wednesday, March 14, 2018

That's So Meta

Image result for metacognition memeMetacognition is often defined as “thinking about thinking”. . Kids need metacognition for learning so that they can improve their reading, thinking and learning.

  • Metacognition increases students abilities to transfer or adapt their learning to new contexts and tasks.
  • They can think about the task and the context of different learning situations.
  • It can help them think of themselves in different contexts.
  • It can help kids become aware of their strengths and weaknesses as learners, writers, readers, test-takers, group members, etc.
  • It gives kids the awareness of problems that need to be solved -- whether knowledge gaps, behavior issues, or social concerns.

The short argument is that metacognition helps kids learn. It helps them remember what they learned last year (or yesterday) and combine it with what they’re learning today. It helps them apply strategies from one lesson to another. It helps them know their own strengths and weaknesses  -- and then strengthen the weaknesses and build on the strengths.

The end-goal is for kids to become self guided. We can’t always do all the guiding. Someday, our little birdies will fly out of our nests and they need to be able to assess the situations that may arise and make to make in-flight decisions on their own

It makes kids become a part of their learning process. It helps us make learning something we do WITH them not, TO them.

It’s putting the “why” behind everything, everything you do.

It is an executive skill that helps kids MAKE THINGS HAPPEN.  

But it’s not a natural thought process for all kids. So how can we teach them to think about their thinking?

We can intentionally build it in to our classes, particularly with Formative Assessment (i.e. checks for understanding).

Here are my favorite ways of addressing Metacognition through Formative Assessment:

  1. Misconception Check: Give kids a common Misconception statement about a topic. Have students quickwrite to explain why they agree or disagree with it.
  2. Anticipation Guide: Choose several statements from the lesson you are about to teach that can be answered as True or False (make sure to have a few of each). Before the lesson, ask kids to give their best guesses and answer each statement. AFTER the lesson, ask kids to answer the same statements -- but this time, their answer should be based on learning. THis helps kids see where they learned and grew within a lesson.
  3. Muddiest (or Clearest Point): At the end of a lesson, ask kids “What is the ‘muddiest’ point from today?”, meaning, what are you still confused about. You can drill down further and ask “what do you find unclear about the concept of Manifest Destiny?”. Alternately, you can ask about the “clearest point” and discuss the portion of the lesson that your students DO understand the most clearly.
  4. I Used To Think But Now I Know At the end of a lesson, have kids complete the  sentence to see what they have learned about the lesson. “I used to think ______ but now I know ____________.
  5. Four Corners: Have students choose a corner based on their level of learning for a particular topic. Once students have chosen their corners, allow them to discuss their progress with people who are in a similar point in their learning. Then, pair Corner 1 & 3 and 2& 4 for peer tutoring. For example, choose a corner based on your knowledge of the impact of Constitutional Rights:
    1. Corner 1: The Dirt Road (There’s so much dust, I can’t see where I’m going!)
    2. Corner 2: The Paved Road (It’s fairly smooth but there are a lot of potholes)
    3. Corner 3: The Highway (I feel fairly confident bbut have occasional slowdowns)
    4. Corner 4: The Interstate (I’m travelling along and could easily give directions to someone else)

How can you teach your kids to use metacognition? It will increase everything from their reading to their content knowledge to their test-taking to their real-life problem solving! I love to hear how you teach metacognitive skills in your class! Email me

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Start Me Up

So, when Mick Jagger sang “start me up”, I am pretty sure he wasn’t talking about sentence starters.

But I am.

I have learned a lot of things over the years about kids and learning. One of those things is that kids often struggle to know where to start when a teacher gives them an assignment. They also struggle to use academic language. (I can’t tell you how many times I got a writing assignment with a “lol” somewhere in there!). They also struggle to figure out what the teacher wants from them. Sometimes they struggle to understand the question.

Well, I have one idea that will cover those issues.

It’s a sentence starter.

Seriously.  It sounds so silly, I know. Some of us think of early elementary school, and think it’s not useful for our secondary students, but I would respectfully disagree.

I think a good sentence starter can help our kids first know where to start with a task, whether it’s a writing assignment or a graphic organizer or whatever. If you start a sentence for the kid, it will lead their thinking where you want them to go. Your kids will be more successful at thinking and at writing about the topic.

I also think a good sentence starter can help students use academic language. It doesn’t come naturally for many kids, especially kids who don’t hear more formal language at home. Heck, I don’t use formal academic language at home. (or here, either, when I say “heck”). Kids are not naturally academic speakers and writers and so we need to teach them how and when to use academic language.

Sentence starters help the kid figure out what the teacher is looking for. If you ask a kid for the causes of the Civil War and you give her “Three important causes of the Civil War are _____”, she can better understand the question and better frame her answer.

I also love sentence starters because they are a fabulous way to differentiate. Do you have English Language Learners? Sentence starters are a quick and effective way to help students who are acquiring the English Language to understand and express your content.  

I also think it helps with some of your “out of the box” thinkers. The kids who are smart but can’t keep their assignments on track without going off on a tangent -- it can help them too.  You can also differentiate “up” to challenge your more academically successful kiddos by asking them to do more than one thing with a sentence starter.

Wait! I want to clarify! Please know that when I talk about sentence starters, I don’t mean cloze notes. Cloze notes have one answer that goes in the blank. They’re basically copying made easy and unless your student has been learning English for two years or less, they’re not appropriate for middle or high school students. By sentence starters, I mean the teacher has begun the sentence for the students, to guide them, but then releases the students to finish their own thoughts with their own words.  Cloze notes are low level. Sentence Starter is higher order.

Cloze Notes: The _________ of the Civil War were __________ and __________/  
Sentence Starter: The most important cause of the Civil War was __________________________ because __________________________________________.

So, let’s wrap this up. Sentence starters help your kids get started, so they can be more successful. They help you differentiate for both English Language LEarners and kids who just need direction. They increase the practice your kids have with academic language. They are not the same as Cloze Notes.

How can you use sentence starters in your class and not make a grown man (or woman, or kid) cry? How can you start them up so they will be more successful with their thinking and writing?

As always -- I love to hear! Email me at

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

I Love Sticky Notes

What is the one supply you could not live without in your classroom?

Mine is sticky notes.

I love sticky notes! I lovelovelovelove them. They are cheap, plentiful, colorful, and moveable. They are the best tool for organization, feedback, lists, ... and teaching.

Of course, I write lists and notes on them. But that’s basic stuff. I used to write specific feedback to my students in their notebooks on sticky notes (and now I sometimes use them with teachers).  I use them when I am in classrooms to give  teachers feedback. Anyone who knows me knows that I keep them in a little box in my work bag and bust them out everywhere I go

Sticky notes are appealing to kids. They’re small, so they don’t look like “too much work”. They are colorful and appealing and they require student thinking (not just a one-word answer). And they aren’t permanent. So a sticky note put in the wrong place can be moved and it’s no big deal. They can be saved more easily than a full page of paper. And there’s something a little fun about them. At least more fun than “regular” paper.

But how else can we use sticky notes to support higher order thinking in our classrooms? Here are a few quick and awesome ideas!
  1. Sticky Notes as Feedback -- When grading an assignment, particularly a tough  higher-order-thinking one, give some feedback to a student on a sticky note. That way, the student can keep your feedback, transfer it to another place, show it to his/her family, or use it next time he does a similar assignment.
  2. Sticky Notes for Peer Editing -- When you do a DBQ or a another short or long writing assignment, it’s extremely valuable for the kids to trade papers and give each other feedback. That way, they don’t write all over the other person’s paper, which can feel and look a little disheartening.
  3. Sticky Notes for Annotation -- So, the kids can’t write in the textbook (or on the class set of whatever) but you want them to interact with text. What do you do? Have them take notes on sticky notes. Students can make notes, write questions, note important terms and ideas all on sticky notes. If you have them write the page number and paragraph number on the sticky note, and stick the note on paper in theri notebook, they can go back and use it another time. Bingo. Problem solved.
  4. Sticky Note Gallery Walk -- Have you had your students create something in groups (like a poster or on chart paper) and then had other groups come around to learn from those posters? Let the observers leave thoughts, questions, feedback on the posters with a sticky note. This does two things. First, of course, it gives feedback to the group who created the poster (or whatever). Second, it keeps the other groups accountable by making them record their thoughts and feedback -- without tampering with the original poster that the group was so proud of!
  5. Sticky Notes for Formative Assessment -- How do I know what my kids learned this period? Again, use sticky notes. I have two favorites with this. First, I love to have my kids write one sentence summaries. They can use the sticky notes to explain the lesson, the point, the learning goal, or what they learned in one  sentence. OR they can write the five most important words of the lesson/reading/topic on their sticky note and you-the-teacher can compare. This is a great way to get some overall feedback to see how well your kids learned what you wanted them to learn and what they got out of the lesson/reading/activity.
  6. Sticky Notes for Hands-On Sorting -- Want your kids to do a card sort? Try it on Sticky notes, on a wall (or a table/desk/board/floor). Have your kids split the work of jotting down the terms and then sorting them into the three branches. Because they’re sticky, they’re easy to move if a group puts a term in the wrong place. Try this with words associated with the North and the South, the Axis and the Allies, the Three Branches, the Four Causes of World War I, or any other time you want your kids to sort words in a more hands-on, up-and-moving type of activity.
  7. Sticky Notes As Survey -- Want to hook your kids in to the lesson? Ask them an opinion question and have them display their thoughts on a chart. Who do you think had the best plan for 1960s America -- Dr. King or Malcolm X? Would you have dropped the Atom Bomb if you had been Truman? Which author do you agree with? Have the kids write their comment and stick their note under the posted heading. Now you have a visual answer as to what each class period thinks...
How else do you use one of the cheapest, most versatile office supplies in your classroom? How can you make the most of something as simple as sticky notes to increase Higher Order THinking? As always, I love to hear about it! Email me

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Hook

What are you doing this weekend? And what made you want to do whatever it is that you do on your free time?

I mean, what makes you want to watch that movie, go to that event, show up at that party? What makes you pick up that book or call that friend to do dinner.

Someone has to grab your attention and hook you in.

Sometimes it’s a trailer for a movie. Sometimes it’s an advertisement. Sometimes it’s a personal invitation. Sometimes it’s an article you read or a flyer you spotted or a word-of-mouth recommendation or an email from me looking/stalking for NHD judges (please! We still need some for saturday morning!)

But you and I are not immune to getting hooked into things.

So why don’t we plan explicitly to “hook” our kids into our lessons?

We know that some of our students struggle to get “into” school. Some struggle to participate. Some struggle with motivation. Some struggle with relevance.

Sometimes we treat these issues as something we can get to maybe when we have time. Something we would tackle if we didn’t have so gosh darn much content to teach. Something that sounds like a good idea but not our main jobs.Something that’s not our problem; it’s the kids’ problem.

I would argue that motivation and engagement are MORE important than the details of our content. These things are not secondary to the content. Without engaging kids, the kids will never LEARN the content!

Does that make sense? Kids can’t learn content if they don’t have a reason. They can’t learn it if it doesn’t catch them and relate to them.

I sat through a training recently that wasn’t relevant to me. You better believe that I struggled to be engaged and learn the content because I didn’t connect or see a reason for learning it.

Why don’t we use quick hooks to get our kids interested and engaged -- so that we can increase motivation and increase participation and increase student success?

In plain speak, why don’t we do something to get our pique our students’ interest and then see if that makes them more likely to participate and actually learn?[

A hook doesn’t have to take long. It shouldn’t take long! Somewhere between one minute and five minutes. It might be part of you bellwork. It might not.

One of the easiest, quickest hooks I ever saw was an ELA teacher teaching about suspense. He had piled a bunch of books precariously on his desk that were going to fall at any moment. That was a fantastic hook that required less than one minute of class time.

So what can we do to hook our kids? There are a million ideas. Here are just a few
  • Relatable Questions: Ask a relatable, discussion-worthy question. Kids can turn and talk or can do one-minute, timed quickwrites and share.
    • If an 18 year old decides to run away from his/her family, should the family make that person come back? What about a 17 year old? (to introduce the Civil War)
  • Artworks: Art is created to make people think and feel. Period. If you can find art to hook kids, you can engage them in a non-intimidating way.
    • Nothing like the “American Progress”  painting to get kids thinking about Westward Expansion. You can do “I See, I Think, I Wonder” pretty quickly and get the kids thinking.
  • Surveys/Continuum:  Ask your students what they think about whatever. Or, have them place themselves on a continuum.
    • Survey them about whether they would rather stay home on the farm or move to a factory town for work during the Industrial Revolution. Ask them to make a human continuum of whether they think stronger federal government or stronger state governments better protect people’s rights.
  • Prior Knowledge: Sometimes, the kids don’t have any prior knowledge. But sometimes they do. Instead of assuming one way or another, find out. If they DO know something, it will make them feel more successful and likely to participate that day.
    • Ask them to “braindump” everything they know about World War II (or think they know) or about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
  • Card Sorts: A card sort is a great way to get kids engaged. Give them cards with different terms from the lesson and have them sort them into categories that “make sense”.
    • Give the kids cards with amendments and have them sort the amendments into categories.
  • A Video: A quick  video -- with a higher-order question that ties to the point of the  lessons is always a good way to catch your students’ attention. But make it a useful video that it quick. And then don’t ask your kids to take notes. Try asking them to link the video to the benchmark or using five words to describe the event in the video or asking them to explain the connection
    • Try a video of the Berlin Wall coming down on live TV or a Brain Pop or Flocabulary or any of a million great lesson hooks. Just keep it quick and relate it to the lesson.
  • Adolescent Perspective: Get inside the brain of a teen or kid at the time and see if you can get your modern kids to think about being a kid in the past.
    • Try a quote from the Tinkers (of Tinker vs. Des Moines), a quick story about the Children’s March in Birmingham, or the perspective of a younger sibling of soldier in war.

How do you purposefully hook your kids in at the beginning of a lesson? How to you intentionally grab their attention? If you think you don’t have time, how can you make time to catch the attention of more students? How do you already do this?

If you don’t regularly use “hooks”, I challenge you to try one on your next lesson and see how it goes. Maybe you can increase your student engagement by 10%? Maybe by 20%?

Let me know how it goes! I love to hear! Email me at


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Goldilocks and The Three Teachers

Goldilocks and the Three Teachers:   
A Metaphor Story

Once upon a time, there was a student named Goldilocks. One day, she went for a walk (with a pass) through campus. As she walked, she came across three teachers.

She knocked on the door (and showed her pass) and politely entered the first classroom where the teacher was teaching.  Goldilocks decided that the learning looked appealing and sat down to get a taste of that learning.

But when she started to try to take a bite of the learning, she closed her mouth and shook her head. This teacher gave TOO MUCH support! Before Goldilocks had a chance to think, the teacher was telling the class the answers, pointing to the page, and lowering the thinking level to recall level.

Of course, there must be some bears, I mean, students who need that level of support. But not all of them! And certainly not Goldilocks!!

So Goldilocks politely took her hall pass and headed out of that “too hot” class with the TOO MUCH SUPPORT. She walked to the room next door, knocked on the door, showed her pass, and took a seat in the second class.  The teacher was giving instructions and Goldilocks thought that maybe this would be the tasty learning that her brain needed that day!

But when she looked at her materials to start learning, she closed her mouth and shook her head again! This teacher gave TOO LITTLE support! Where the first teacher was doing all the work for the students, the second teacher just handed out the assignment and then left the kids to figure it out on their own! Goldilocks didn’t know where to begin, so she just didn’t start anything.

Of course, there must be some bears, I mean students, that don’t need any support with their assignment. But not all of them! And certainly not Goldilocks!

So Goldilocks politely took her hall pass and headed out of that “too cold” class with the TOO LITTLE SUPPORT. She walked to the room next door, knocked on the door, showed her pass, and took a seat in the third class. Goldilocks thought that maybe THIS would be the JUST RIGHT learning that she needed!

In the third class, the teacher was giving support that was JUST RIGHT! Goldilocks sat and stayed all period and learned ALL the things! She learned so much and was so much more successful!

What did that support look like?
  • Written AND verbal directions
  • Incorporation of visuals with new concepts
  • Gradual Release of skills and procedures
  • Chunking content and work into manageable pieces
  • Differentiation (giving more support to kids who need more and less support to kids that don’t need as much)
  • Collaboration (the real kind, not just I-do-the-first-half-and-you-do-the-second-half)
  • Using sentence starters for ESOL students
  • Letting kids have productive struggle

It’s easy, like Billy Joel sings, to “go to extremes”. We all have done it from time to time.

It’s easy to either give TOO MUCH SUPPORT, where we do the learning FOR the kids and they don’t have to do anything. These are the days where we are exhausted because we run around pointing out all the answers, lecturing and telling all the kids what to know, and give them word-for-word notes. It’s TOO MUCH support for almost all kids.  They don’t learn much because we-the-teachers are doing all the talking, all the thinking, all the work -- and the kids aren’t doing the thinking, the talking, or the work. They don’t own it.

It’s just as easy (maybe easier?) to give TOO LITTLE SUPPORT. Where we just tell the kids to figure it out on their own, where we just won’t jump in and save them or even help them. The kids don’t learn much here either (except the personally, naturally-intrinsically-motivated kids). This is where even a kid motivated by grades puts her head down and decides not to even try. This is when we had out the assignment, the packet, the work and tell the kids it’s due Friday.

Giving JUST RIGHT SUPPORT is tougher, more “grey area”. JUST RIGHT SUPPORT depends on the kids. Some kids need more support, other kids need less. You have to know your kids -- by data AND personality! You have to adjust what you do a little for each kid, each class. It means that third period might need you to give them six questions and fourth period might only need four. It might mean that 7th period needs the directions written and verbal and choral read aloud -- but first period needs everyone to stop talking about the directions so they can get started and concentrate.  JUST RIGHT SUPPORT might mean that sixth period needs to do just the top half of the page, and then get together and check to see if they’re doing it right before moving on to the bottom half -- while second period just needs the time and the quiet to zoom through the whole assignment. Half of fifth period needs you to read aloud to them to help them comprehend the text and the other half doesn’t.

It’s tricky but SOOOOO worth it.

How can we be Goldilocks and give JUST RIGHT SUPPORT (not too much, not too little)?  How do you do this? How can you be more intentional about this? As always, I love to ehar from you! Email me at