Category Archives: classroom strategies

The Gamification of Learning

Playing games in the classroom, be they of a cooperative or competitive nature, is a wonderful way in which  to increase student engagement and motivation.

 Admittedly, the simple act of saying, “Okay kids, so now we are going to play _________ games,” magically heightens “the happiness/alertness factor” in the classroom.

 & so … why do I believe in “the gamification of learning”?

Alphabetically speaking, games involve/embrace the following:

  •  Active engagement
  • Challenges – ongoing & ever present
  • Challenges – often very “cool”: i.e. “Save the world”, “Save the Prince”, “Climb the mountain, cross the ocean, etc.” with the implied understanding that as a player, “You can do it!”
  • Clear goals – players learn to “follow instructions” as they morph and become increasingly complex over time
  • Co-operative learning or friendly competition – choose the “type” that appeals to individual students
  • Developing strategies – skills acquisition
  • Fun – it’s a game! 😉
  • Goals – clearly laid out, increasing in complexity as the “user” becomes more proficient/adept
  • Immediate feedback  – players know exactly where they stand relative to personal goals and/or to other players
  • Levels –  playing & learning are levelled according to individual strengths and needs
  • Practice – often repetitive in nature as well – with the goal of achieving “mastery” in order to reach the next level
  • Problem solving – let’s learn “how” and in new ways …. students are able to “try out theories” and take risks, to develop problem solving and critical thinking skills in a safe, fun environment
  • Progress – attainable goals; visible; rewards 😉
  • Risk taking – players learn to take calculated risks in a safe environment
  • Role-playing – creativity – Students choose who or what they want to be – a unicorn? a wizard?  yourself?
  • Skills acquisition through a clearly outlined process.

 … & so there it is – alphabetically speaking – the “the gamification of learning” —- just one among many of the “cool” approaches to learning – one that engages students as active learners.

(Please note: I am grateful to all those who have spoken and written before me on this most entertaining and effective teaching strategy … I tip my hat to you … for your ideas and input — for these are surely not all my own but, rather a co-operative process.)


Year End Thank Yous!

Year End Cards / Thank Yous

This year we (a.k.a. “I”) have decided that our class should make the most marvelous “Thank You” cards for all those who have done so much to ensure that we have had an amazing school year.

These individuals include: Specialty Teachers, Eco Team Leader, School Director, Principals, After Care Staff, Custodians/Cleaners, Hot Lunch Staff, Class Parents, etc.

The cards are simple cards … but they they are huge & handcrafted – big & bold … & best of all they are “from the heart” … so far the kids have done an awesome, amazing, outstanding job! I can’t wait to see what the final product looks like!

In order to ensure that they are “well done”, I have assigned certain students to be in charge of creating each card according to what I believe to be their favourite subject (teacher).  😉
The students are really into creating these cards and gathering as many signatures as possible!

What a wonderful addition to our year end activities … I am only embarrassed that it took me this long to schedule this time into our last few weeks.
Ugh … live & learn …


This is the Way We Start Each Day (&#3: A Surprising “Assessment Tool”)

… & so, if you were a fly on my classroom wall you would see that this is the way we start our day in Grade 5A:

1st: Our Brain Breakfast:
First thing every day I show a “cool video” on the Smartboard.
These videos are not necessarily “curriculum related”, but they are all educational in their own way, are entertaining and most often help us to start off on the right foot!
For example, these videos may be science related
(currently, my fav. site is:, or they may be pictures of cool graffiti (,
or even articles about and clips of baby zoo animals (

2nd: What’s In Store for Us this Day:
Now that I have everyone’s attention (e.g. see Brain Breakfasts), I outline the day clearly and carefully – taking care to answer any questions and allow for processing time.
Just like their teacher, my students are better able to navigate their way through the day when “there are no surprises”.
(I even go so far as to tell them what they will be writing about in the afternoon, for example, giving them time to their process ideas (whether they realize that they are doing just that or not ;-).)

3rd Riddles & Brain Teasers :
I post a riddle and leave it up until someone is able to answer it.
(I never leave a riddle up for more than a week.)
Some good sites for this include:

Last week, for example, the riddle was:

Q: “What comes once in a minute, twice in a moment, but never in a thousand years?”
A: “The letter M.”

I originally began to post riddles in order to introduce yet an another activity that encourages “flexible thinking”.
(The truth of the matter being that riddles and brain teasers are simply good fun as well!)
What has surprised me the most however, is that this “activity” has proven to be a surprisingly informative additional assessment tool!
“Sam” for example, is usually one of he first to answer our riddles. In doing so, not only is she “shining” and having fun, but she is showing us that she is a creative, clever, flexible, playful thinker. I know beyond a doubt, that she possesses excellent reasoning abilities and is a a true risk taker.
In playing with riddles we come toegther as a class to model and practice all of the above skills as well. We always take a moment to share with others our problem solving methods and thinking processes.
We just love it!Student_clipart
How do you start your day?


Backwards Planning, Understanding & Learning in the Classroom: Understanding by Design®

Backwards Planning, Understanding & Learning in the Classroom: Understanding by Design®

If you were a fly on my classroom wall you would see that in a best effort to “teach for understanding”, I “teach backwards”and I love it!

This backward approach to planning and assessment was not of my own doing, but rather created by the brilliant Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.
Together these two developed the Understanding by Design® framework.

This approach to curriculum design focusses on “teaching for understanding”, the overall goal being to develop, deepen and strengthen student understanding.

This approach to curriculum design emphases “backward design”, being that in any give case the identified outcomes dictate unit planning, instruction and assessment.

& so …
If you were a fly on my classroom wall you would see that thanks to Wiggins & McTighe I embrace the following :

1. “Backwards Design”
2. “Teaching for Understanding”
3. “Six Facets of Understanding”

& in a nutshell – and as I understand them – they can be outlined and defined in the following way:

(A) Backward Design:
This approach to planning works in stages … three stages to be exact:

Stage 1:
what students will know and be able to show when all is said and done – “What are our desired the outcomes/end goals?” & go from there!

Stage 2: (based on the outcome of Stage 1)
Design assessment practices and activities that effectively and objectively demonstrates authentic learning in the classroom – “What can we do and how can we show/know whether we are meeting our target goals – that authentic learning – that a deepening of understanding – has taken place?… is taking place at each step/stage along the way!”

Stage 3: (based on the aforementioned)
Identifying/developing activities”“What learning activities/experiences can we introduce/share in order to strengthen student understanding ?”

(B) Teaching for Understanding
Done right – and when all is said and done – students explore and understand essential questions, big ideas, and end goals. (In order to truly understand what this all means/entails check out the links below. So cool!)

(C) According to this approach to planning and design, there are “Six Facets of Understanding
Students “demonstrate” these facets when they:
Gain/demonstrate perspective

Overall, this approach is:

  • A guide for planning classroom practices.
  • Organic – never fixed – always flexible – Lessons, activities, etc. change or remain the same depending on students’ progress, and demonstration of understanding and learning.
  • Collaborative – teachers share ideas, goals, resources, and engage in peer reflection and review (fantastic!).

& so there you have it!
My preferred approach to planning, teaching, guiding, learning, questioning, sharing, growing, etc. in the classroom!


Once again, please note that in no way is any of this of my own creation … and I am sure that there is a good deal more that I need to know and understand about the Understanding by Design® framework.
Needless to say, what I do understand to date influences me every day and in every way … This framework guides and inspires me, and is a methodology that I embrace wholeheartedly!

Important Note & useful sites:
UbD is a trademark owned by ASCD
“Authentic Education: Understanding by Design®”

See also:

Teacher Tips – Things I Try to Keep in Mind

Teacher Tips – Things I Try to Keep in Mind

What follows are words, ideas and practices that I try to live by.

I would love to hear from those in my PLN … What do you try to keep in mind as you plan, approach and maneuver through your day? What are some of the things that keep you grounded, and make your experiences rewarding, successful, motivating & authentic?


  • Be Authentic & Smile – Teach in a way that speaks to you, that feeds your soul and keeps you motivated … teach “what/how” you love and love what you do! (All the while: Be open to change … there’s no “one way”. Be adventurous, explore alternatives.)
  • Be flexible. Be open to change. In your practice: maintain focus, all the while rolling with the curves/punches.
  • Never bite off more than you can chew. There are so many amazing ideas out there … It’s easy to get caught up in moments and want to do it all. Be enthusiastic, be eager … but above all be realistic.
  • Over plan … have a bag of tricks! You never know what each day will bring … it always pays to be prepared.
  • Share your thoughts, ideas & successes — on the flip side address those lessons that didn’t go as planned … Ask for support when necessary … You can’t do it all and your colleagues, your PLN, etc. have so much to offer.
  • Show you care. With each day, try you best to show each student that you care about him/her: as an individual.
  • Teach to all learning styles: e.g. acknowledge the auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners in the room.
  • Use a mixed approach; use a mix of teaching strategies every day. Ensure that students are active, involved & invested.
  • Challenge students. Provide choice when possible. Encourage students to take ownership of their learning experiences in the classroom.
  • Teach strategies as well as facts/concepts (e.g. how to read for meaning, how to study for and take a test, how to problem solve, how to be an active listener, etc.)
  • Keep up with the latest trends: technology, music, movies, fashion, books, etc. Understand your students’ world/environment.
  • Embrace technology — need I say more? Love the Smartboard, Wordle, Voicethread, Google Earth, Blogging, Twitter etc.!
  • Set goals – As you approach each lesson keep in mind your #1 goal. What is it that you are trying to “teach here”? i.e. a fact, a strategy, an approach, etc.
  • Reflect – at the end of every day take a few minutes for you-the-teacher. Ask yourself: What went well today? What would I do differently? What will I keep from this lesson/day/experience?
  • Be firm, be kind, be caring and be accepting of your students.
  • Be as firm, kind, caring and as accepting of you as you are of your students.
  • Be a professional – be human – be you.
  • Be a leaner as well a a teacher. We are so lucky. There’s so much to know!


My Top Picks: Activities & Approaches that Rocked Our First Term!

My Top Picks:
Activities & Approaches that Rocked Our First Term!

Always Give Away the Ending
I start every unit in Social Studies & Science by “giving away the ending”. For example, when introducing our unit on Ancient Egypt we read a short article (or watch a video, read a picture book) all about life during that time: the roles of men, women & children, the foods they ate, where they lived, their kings & queens, religion, gods and goddesses, rituals, etc. We then discuss interesting facts (i.e. the fact that only boys were allowed to go to school) and “play with” the topic for a day or so. This introduction peaks their interest and serves as a foundation to build upon.

Choice is Choice
This year I have provided more “choice” than ever …. my students loved it … & I loved it. This approach allowed students the opportunity to build on their strengths while learning about and addressing their needs. With this apporach there is a true sense of ownership, interest, engagement and enthusiasm.
For example, upon finishing both class novels this term (The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick & The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights is a 1968 novel written by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes) students were provided with a “menu” of final assignments to choose from. Some excellent examples of project menus are as follows: 1. Book Projects 2. Final Novel Projects 3. 91 Ways to Respond to Literature  4. Novel: Tic Tac Toe

Project & Inquiry Based Learning
Love it(!) and I am excited to do more, more, more!
To learn more check out:

The Teach & Tell
A “Teach and Tell” requires that students teach their classmates about something that is of interest to them.  Much like “Show and Tell” this activity provides students with an opportunity to share individual areas of expertise/interest. It encourages students to make organized, engaging oral presentations, while developing effective speaking and listening skills. The Teach and Tell is also a great way to increase class interconnectedness as students learn important things about one another’s interests and skills.

Blogging Rocks!
This was the first year that I had my students blogging … & we all loved it! I used There’s nothing jazzy or fancy about this site … but it is easy to navigate and it is super secure: and that’s all that really matters to me.
The Benefits of Student Blogging include:
-Authenticity – authentic writing for authentic audiences;
-Affordability – is for example is free;
-Builds confidence as students shine, share & respond;
-Carries across the curriculum;
-Collaborative discussions as students respond to & learn from one another;
-Communication skills – writing for an audience necessitates & builds effective communication skills;
-Connections between students & classes, between home & school;
-Develops higher order thinking skills (as students write, read, reflect & respond).

Hot Penning Please
Three times a week I set our timer for 5 minutes. When I say “Go!” my students write and write and write. They write about whatever comes into their heads. They might write a story, a memory, a poem or a stream of consciousness. The “deal is” that they can’t lift their pencil from the paper! My students just love this opportunity “free write”. They tell me that “it’s fun!” and that “it feels like a game!” On occasion we go back to highlight favourite passages, sentences or ideas to use as a springboard for longer, more formal pieces.
Check out:

Strategy Driven
It’s so important for my students to learn about and play with different strategies. I want them to build on their strengths (e.g. know what works for them) and addresses their needs. I want them to understand how to listen and read for meaning,  how to answer comprehension questions, how to study smart, how to write a test, how to problem solve, etc.
For some tools of the trade check out:
Test Taking Tips:
Active Listening Skills:
Writing Strategies:
Math Problem Solving: ;

Picture Books in the Grade 5 Classroom
I love reading, exploring and sharing picture books with my Grade 5 students. I use them in all(!) subject areas: Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, etc. They are quite simply a fantastic resource.

Class Meetings Building a Classroom Community
Class Meetings are just that: A time for students to sit and discuss issues that speak to them. They are student directed and teacher facilitated. The agenda is set by the group and depends on the group’s various interests, needs and concerns at any one time.

Learning Logs
Learning Logs develop metacognitive skills, guide my teaching practice, and provide yet another authentic assessment tool. Learning Logs are classroom journals. Students use them in order to keep honest and reflective records of their understanding of subject areas in the classroom (e.g. Math, Science, Social Studies, Writing Workshop, Reading, etc.).
Read more here:

Home Journals: Authentic Writing & Communication Between Home & School
Every Friday students write letters home to their parents about their week. Home Journals help to answer the age-old “dinner table question”, “What did you do at school this week?”. These journals also provide parents, students and teachers with weekly examples/snapshots of individual writing skills development.

Well, although I am sure that there are more …. these are my top picks for our First Term/2011 in Grade 5!
What are some of your “hot picks” in your classroom? I would love to know!


An Approach to Social Studies & Science: Building Excitement – Engaging Students

Social Studies & Science: Building Excitement – Engaging Students

If you were a fly on my classroom wall you would see that I do my best to ensure that my students are excited about learning. I want their experiences in the classroom to be dynamic, challenging, active and organic.
This week I have been thinking a lot about Social Studies & Science and what I do to try to ensure that my students are actively engaged in the learning process. I hope that after posting this others will also their ideas and experiences we the rest of us.


An Approach to Social Studies & Science: Building Excitement – Engaging Students

1. Begin by showing (e.g. visual displays) and talking to students about what they will know “at the end of the unit of study”. Give students time to process the information.

2. Start with a few short readings on the subject matter: picture books (fiction & nonfiction), magazines, websites (on SmartBoard), video clips, etc.

3. “Speed Dating with Books” – Place one book on each desk. Students are given a few minutes with each book. On your signal they switch to the next desk & book. Be certain to provide some follow-up discussion time.

4. Complete KWHL chart. I never do this until after we have discussed the subject matter, read books, watched videos etc. I find that they respond better when they have “an anchor” – a base from which to operate. Discover the following: What are they interested in? What are they passionate about? What do they want to learn about? Strike a balance between the program that you are required to deliver and their interests.

5. Find live, local experts: Canvas your class, your school, your friends and neighbours. Invite local experts/speakers into the classroom to share their knowledge & experiences.

6. Find in house experts. What are other teachers in “your world” (e.g. school, PLN, find LiveBinders, etc.) doing to make Social Studies engaging? Ask!

7. Use all media to engage learners – be a detective, ask around. There’s a lot out there!

8. Engage in collaborative projects.

9. Incorporate drama: Have students role-play. Write & act out skits based on the subject matter. Come to school dressed as characters or a people: play and perform. Schedule “special days”: e.g. “Ancient Egypt Day”: Students come in costume, bring traditional foods & rotate through centres. e.g. Set up a legislative debate in the classroom (

10. Incorporate all subject areas: e.g. Math, Art, Drama, Gym, etc.

11. Take students on field trips – explore the world outside the four walls of the classroom.

12. Go on virtual field trips – e.g. –  Google Treks –

13. Conduct classroom experiments – students always love a hands-on approach (e.g.

14. Skype with other schools, countries, experts …

15. Create virtual timelines: e.g. Timetoast

16. Explore Museum Box

17. Play games & watch videos on the Smartboard (e.g. BrainPop & StudyJam)

18. Be enthusiastic! Allow your excitement to be infectious! Get into it! Inspire & ignite!