Author Archives: Joe

Math Play: Making Materials More Easily Accessible

I recently created another space in my classroom that is dedicated to math materials. I rearranged the classroom, mainly to make room for an expanded science center (more on that soon). Where the science area had formerly been, I had an opportunity for something new.

I often have mixed feelings regarding whether to rearrange my classroom. It can be hard to anticipate how children will interact with new spaces. I worry that the things I choose to replace in fact are valuable, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever know the truth. However, the reorganization process is valuable. It forces me to thoroughly consider how the classroom is being used and how to make more out of the space we have. As compared to teachers in older-age classrooms, preschool and kindergarten teachers spend a lot of time making major and minor adjustments to classroom design. I postulate that many teachers in higher grades stand to benefit from a bit of preschool mentality in that respect.

At any rate, my goal with the newly emptied space was to encourage students to use more early math skills during their dramatic play. The space is located near the toy kitchen, the dolls, the large animals, and the dresser. Consequently, students had previously been using the science tools (e.g., magnifying glasses, items from nature, measuring tapes, etc.) in their imaginative play scenarios. I reasoned that math materials put in that same space might similarly be incorporated.

I gathered various items — number tiles, various dice, a clock, calculators, a large abacus, pennies, a number puzzle — and placed them in what I hoped would be an attractive arrangement. So far, it seems to be a success. As I had hoped, children are regularly using most of the items I put out. Sometimes they’re used as random accessories (e.g., calculators being used as telephones), but I have observed children counting pennies, rolling dice, matching number tiles, and employing other functional math skills while engaged imaginative play. As the novelty fades, I expect those behaviors will be somewhat less frequent, but I think this new math area will remain a good method of enhancing my students’ early math skills.

math area 3

math area 6

math area 4

math area 1

math area 7


Experimenting with Ants

My classroom got some new pets this year. We adopted a group of harvester ants, which gave me the opportunity to teach an extended lesson in scientific experimentation.

Science lessons for young children typically emphasize observation and investigation. That’s a major component of my approach, but I also run experiments with my students on a regular basis. Ants turned out to be great subjects for us to study.


Setting Things Up

I took some time to read about what others had done, and I looked at some products that are available. The first challenge was finding a home for the ants. There are many ant farms available for purchase. Most, if not all, are tall and narrow–designed to demonstrate how ants dig their tunnels. I did want my students to see the ants tunneling, but I also wanted a flat surface on which we could set up experiments. I decided to buy an 8″ by 6″ rectangular plastic food storage container.

However, there’s a problem with having a wide container. The ants will dig down to center and out of sight if they can. I needed something to keep the ants from digging anywhere but at the edges of the container, where we could see their tunnels. I couldn’t find anything that was quite right, so I did what any of my wonderfully resourceful students would have done; I built something out of Legos.

Next, I needed to get some dirt. I had read that a mixture of dirt and sand works well. I pulled some dirt out of the local garden, mixed it with sand, and then filled my container. Unfortunately, my dirt mixture turned out to be a minor failure. Our ants had a hard time keeping their tunnels from collapsing. We witnessed a few fascinating ant rescue operations. (Tip: don’t try to help; you’ll only make it worse.) The children were pretty empathetic towards those trapped ants, which in retrospect I realized might have been a valuable experience.  Perhaps that empathy generalized to some other creatures… or classmates! As for the soil, I don’t know what would have worked better, but I used the opportunity to discuss with my students what we might want to do differently next time. Science doesn’t need to be perfect. (Nor do teachers!) It’s always worth the time to model working through challenges and setbacks and to practice doing so with children as partners.



Then came the key component: ants. I considered getting some from the ground outside. It would be a fun experience finding them as a group. Unfortunately, our school is in the heart of the concrete jungle. Our playground is indoors, as the nearest park is far away. Another challenge would be finding the right kind of ants. I worried that I would end up with escapist ants, nasty biters, or both. Feeling that there were already enough question marks surrounding the project, I decided to purchase red harvester ants from here. They are capable of painful biting, but they are bad climbers, incapable of crawling up the wall of my container. They’re also very active tunnelers. They were delivered ahead of schedule, so I kept them in the refrigerator for an extra day. When I released them, all but a few gradually awoke.

Finally, I had to come up with a way to keep my ants in the dark and hydrated. I was preventing them from digging down into dark places, as is their instinct, so I kept them covered with a dark blanket for most of the day. I also read that providing ants with a source of water was important, but that pools of water were likely to drown them. So we placed small pieces of wet cotton balls in the container with the ants.

Photo Oct 23, 2 57 11 PM


Experimentation Begins

The first few days after releasing the ants, we merely observed them. We talked about observation being a big part of what scientists do–especially animal scientists. You can learn a lot just by watching. Our ants began tunneling almost immediately. Within a day, they had tunnels on two of the four sides of the container. Somehow, they knew not to bother digging in the center of the container. They went straight for the edges. It was fascinating watching the ants carry clumps of dirt around. It’s impressive how much dirt they’re able to move in short periods of time. The children (and I, too) spent many minutes watching and pointing and saying things like “Whoa!” and “Look!”



Then we started setting up simple experiments. I used Legos again to make little feeders that we could put different foods on. I put food on the feeders and carefully placed them on the flat surface in the middle of the container. We wanted to see which foods the ants would prefer. Over the course of weeks, we tried comparing many foods: strawberries, quinoa, corn meal, barley, blueberries, graham crackers, chia seeds, pineapple, garlic, rice, and more. With some combinations, it was difficult to determine whether there was a preference. Other times, it seemed clear what the ants preferred. Strawberries always drew a crowd of ants. Tiny pieces of blueberries and graham cracker crumbs were carried off quickly. Quinoa was perhaps our favorite to watch; because of its light color, it was easy to see when and where the ants carried it.



In another experiment, we set out to test whether ants will avoid cinnamon. I built taller feeders that forced the ants to cross over a small indentation. In that space, one feeder had nothing, while the other was filled with cinnamon powder. We left quinoa and blueberry pieces on both feeders beyond the indentation.

The results were clear. We watched the ants crawling in and out of the feeder without cinnamon, and all of its food was gone within days. In contrast, the feeder with cinnamon seemed to be untouched; even after a week, all of its food remained in place.

This particular experiment was rewarding for me as a teacher. Things seemed to click; the kids really seemed to understand how this experiment helped us learn about our ants. With earlier experiments, I often asked somewhat leading questions to help the children understand what the experiments had taught us. This time, all I had to say was, “What do you think?” and the kids did the deductive reasoning on their own.



In preparation for another experiment, we talked about why the ants didn’t cross the cinnamon. Perhaps it was the odor, or perhaps it was the way it feels. I suggested that maybe ants don’t like walking on any kind of powder. So, we tried the exact same experiment but with ginger powder. This time, the food disappeared from both feeders. In fact, the ants seemed to have done some digging in the ginger powder.


After a month or so of experimenting, I began to wonder about some ant behaviors. It was often hard to tell what the ants were doing. We had to do a lot of guessing. One question in particular I wanted to investigate.

Most of the foods that we left out were carried to one or two corners of the container. The ants seemed to be storing it, but we weren’t sure. Perhaps ants like to carry things around and pile them up. Perhaps some, if not many, of the foods that were carried off of our feeders weren’t actually eaten.

To test these possibilities, I set up two new feeders: one with quinoa, one with tiny pieces of orange paper and white plastic. To our surprise, the ants carried everything away, calling into question the validity of our previous food comparison experiments. We may have been testing a preference for what ants like to carry, not a preference for what ants like to eat.


However, if I could start over, I may not do things differently. I had hoped to demonstrate the many ways scientists tinker with their experiments and question their assumptions. Finding a big problem with the validity of our previous experiments gave us a chance to talk about the ways science can stumble in its slow journey toward new knowledge.

As a whole, the project was a little crude, but fairly scientific, too. I think it did a lot to help give my young students a good early foundational understanding of how science works.

A New Approach to Classroom Guidelines

Every school year, I spend quite a bit of time in the first few weeks establishing a set of classroom guidelines. Although the discussions we have about how best to act are not the most engaging, the time we spend up front pays off big in the long run. Activities run more smoothly, the classroom is a happier place to be, and the time we gain allows us to accomplish many more things.

The National Education Association offers a helpful list of resources that explains the research base for such practice, as well as some specific techniques. There are many effective ways to establish classroom expectations. It’s hard to identify the most essential characteristics, but one seems to stand out: giving students a say in what their classroom should be like. When students help create their classroom rules and structure, they are more likely to remember them, and they are more likely to buy into them.

However, doing this with young students presents challenges. For one, when I ask my students to tell me some rules for school, I am usually flooded with ‘don’t’ statements, such as: don’t hit; don’t kick; don’t eat the crayons. Those are good rules, and there’s a place for them in our expectations, but I want positive behaviors to be more principally featured, and it’s rare that students come up with those on their own.

Another challenge is creating something visual. Very few young students can read, of course, so having a bunch of written rules to look at wouldn’t be very meaningful. I want our classroom expectations to be prominently displayed, giving children steady reminders of how best to behave, but it’s difficult to represent many of our expectations with pictures. Try drawing or finding a picture of someone saying “Can I please have that?” in a nice voice. It’s not easy.

So this year, well aware of those challenges and not expecting to overcome them entirely, I am trying a new approach. I presented my students with four broad expectations. I expect that just about every issue that comes up at school will fall under one or more of these broad expectations. They are:

  1. Be kind. Make people happy.
  2. Use nice words and nice voices.
  3. Take care of toys and other things.
  4. Try your best.

I included some clip art that at least alludes to each expectation, and I hung the expectations in a big open space right behind where I sit during our group activities.

Photo Sep 08, 3 08 06 PM

We went over my four guidelines as a group and the kids gave me specific examples of each. With that context provided, they were able to come up with many examples of positive behavior.

Later, during center time, I asked students to tell me specific guidelines, or “good things to do at school,” as I phrased it. Above my writing, they drew pictures of children abiding by those guidelines.  Then I began hanging their ideas below my four broad expectations.

Photo Sep 04, 12 08 13 PM

Photo Sep 19, 3 15 40 PM Photo Sep 19, 3 15 48 PMPhoto Sep 19, 3 15 58 PM Photo Sep 19, 3 16 53 PMPhoto Sep 19, 3 17 05 PM Photo Sep 19, 3 17 18 PM

Having the students draw the pictures gives them a more active role in creating the guidelines. And though the drawings may be vague for most of us, the students who drew them can tell you what’s happening.

Throughout the school year, I will teach many of what I call social lessons. We’ll talk about different social situations and we’ll come up with ideas for how best to handle them. Some lessons will be on areas I’d like to see the class improve; some will address recurring conflicts; and some will deal with issues that frankly just bother me. With this new system, we can add new guidelines whenever we like. We have one new guideline so far:

Photo Sep 08, 12 32 05 PM

By the end of the year, there will be many more. I’m excited to see how my students respond.

Teaching Young Children About Science

Every summer, my class spends two weeks delving into the world of science. Science lessons pervade my classroom year round, but in these two weeks we dig deeper into what it really means to be a scientist.

We begin by discussing the broadest goal of science: to learn new things. Then we quickly dive into the scientific method. Some aspects of science come naturally to children — they’re curious, inquisitive, and often persistent — but the scientific method needs to be taught. Students rarely stumble upon it alone, and yet it is the crucial process that underlies scientific reasoning; it’s the ‘how’ of science. I break the steps down using the following language, which I write down and refer to repeatedly:

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Make a hypothesis.
  3. Make a test or an experiment.
  4. What did we learn? Should we do another test?

Then we practice it many times. Each day, I ask a few scientific questions. Everybody makes their hypotheses. I point out that scientists often think different things, and they often need to change their minds. Then I point to step number 2 and ask, “Are we done? Is that how science works?” and the class energetically point out that we have to make a test, or an experiment, or it won’t be science!

Now, designing an experiment can be a tall order for young students, but with a bit of scaffolding it’s impressive what children are capable of thinking up. First, it’s important to ask simple, well-phrased questions. Asking the right questions might be the most difficult part of being a scientist. Each year, I try out new questions. Sometimes students are thrown off by one or two misplaced words, so I make a lot of small edits. I print out each question in large font, and I pull the questions out somewhat ceremoniously, which adds a bit of drama. Here are examples of questions I asked this year:

  • What’s healthier for cows to eat: grass or corn?
  • Does algae grow faster in salt water or fresh water?
  • Does eating lots of vegetables make people healthier?
  • What kinds of shoes are faster for running: sneakers or sandals?
  • Do plants need water to grow?
  • Do balloons lose their air faster when it’s hot or when it’s cold?
  • Does boiling water kill the germs in it?
  • Do children learn to read faster with iPads or without iPads?
  • Do carrots help people see better?
  • Which kinds of baseball bats hit more home runs: metal bats or wooden bats?

Next, I ask the children to make two groups of things (or animals, or people, etc.) and we pretend to do different things to the two groups. I rely heavily on hand gestures here. I point to different parts of the floor and ask, for example, “What should we do to these cows, and what should we do to these cows?”

Most of my students catch on pretty fast. By the third or fourth day, I am overwhelmed with volunteers when I ask who thinks they know how we could make an experiment with two groups. I occasionally write down the imaginary experiments that we design as a group, using these simple forms:

Photo Aug 13, 10 03 42 AM

Photo Aug 13, 10 03 21 AM

After we have designed a few imaginary experiments together, each day we carry out a real experiment in the classroom. Thinking of the best experiments is a challenge. Many science “experiments” that you find in books or on the web would be more accurately described as demos, as they don’t actually involve any experimental manipulation. They also often rely on abstract, handed-down knowledge (e.g., air pressure, electricity). Such knowledge can be fascinating, but teaching it often fails to address the process by which the knowledge was accumulated. So, I try to keep things relatively simple.

Another goal is to use experiments that show their results rapidly, so that children can draw connections between what they were thinking before the experiment and how the experiment helped them learn more. Below are a few examples of experiments we ran together this summer.

Photo Aug 04, 9 45 29 AM

Which objects are more slippery?

Photo Aug 08, 11 01 48 AM

Will orange juice keep apples from turning brown?

Photo Aug 06, 9 52 48 AM

Do heavy things or light things fall faster?

Photo Aug 08, 3 38 47 PM

What will make the yeast bubble most?

The final step is to see if my students can think of new experiments independently. I give them a blank piece of paper with a line down the middle. They draw the two groups in their experiments on the two sides. Their questions are often very imaginative,  of course. Some of them are pretty tough to try to answer with experimentation, but many students come up with thoughtful designs nevertheless. Here are a few of my favorites from this year:

Photo Aug 15, 11 04 20 AM

Do big or little clouds make tornadoes?

Photo Aug 15, 11 14 24 AM

Which kind of truck is going to break down first?

Photo Aug 15, 11 14 13 AM

Which kind of dog truck can hold more dogs?

Teaching the scientific method to young students is a pretty big challenge. I’ve chosen to simplify many things and there are aspects of science that my lessons do not address. Other educators certainly have different approaches, perhaps with equal or greater success.

I do not expect young students to reach a very deep understanding of how science works. After two weeks of imaginary and real experiments, only a handful of my students are able to turn around and competently teach the scientific method back to me. It’s difficult to assess how well the rest of the class grasps the concepts. But I’ve seen that young children can at least begin to think about the world around them scientifically. And I believe that if they do so, then they and everyone else will benefit profoundly.

Inverting Addition and Subtraction with Triangles

Each year, by summer, my students are pretty comfortable with addition and subtraction. They can solve both types of problems using various methods, and they can apply the concepts in many contexts. This year’s group was particularly prepared for a challenge. So I decided to spend some time teaching the interrelatedness of addition and subtraction. I chose to scaffold the idea using simple equilateral triangles, as many other teachers have done.

We began by checking to make sure that some completed triangle cards were correct. (I used these triangle flash cards, but I have since made my own, which you can access at the bottom of this post.) We looked at the number on top, pulled out that many coins, and then split the coins into two groups according to the numbers on the two bottom corners. That was a breeze. Everyone was able to do it with surprisingly little support.


The following week, we started making some of our own triangles. We pulled out some number of coins, wrote that number on top corner, divided those coins into two smaller groups, and then wrote those numbers on the bottom corners. This activity went smoothly, too. Some children became confused, but after one or two reminders, they were able to complete it independently.


The week after that, I put out some triangles with a number missing on one of the bottom corners. Now, students counted out the number on top, then separated the number provided on one of the bottom corners, thereby revealing what would need to be in the other corner. This was a little trickier, but most students found it manageable.


Finally, we incorporated written addition and subtraction problems. We used coins to help us fill in the blank triangles on top of the page, as we had done previously. Then, looking the numbers in the triangle and/or the coins on the table, we filled in the blanks in addition and subtraction problems.

We did each type of activity as a group multiple times before trying it in our centers. As I explained the concepts, I carefully arranged the coins and I used many hand gestures. Here are examples of some of the language and gestures I used:

I’m going to get out 6 coins, so I’ll write a 6 on top. Now I’m going to break it apart. I’m putting 4 over here, which means I have how many on this side?… I am going to write 4 and 2 in the bottom corners. I can make a plus problem with these numbers. I can take the 4 [holding my hands above the 4 coins], and get 2 more [hold my hands above the 2 coins]. How many do I have together [making circular movements over both groups]?… I can also make some minus problems with these numbers. If I start with all 6 [gesturing over all of them again], and I take away these 4 [covering up the 4 coins], then how many are left [pointing at the 2 coins]?… Or I can start with all 6 [gesturing over all of them once more], take away these 2 [covering up the 2], and I’m left with…

Occasionally, I repeated the same language while gesturing at the numbers in the triangle instead of the coins in front of us.

For most of my students, this final activity was difficult. They seemed overwhelmed by the many steps they had to follow. However, a handful of students were able to put all of the pieces together independently.

Photo Aug 06, 10 55 06 AM

Photo Jul 28, 11 03 56 AM Photo Jul 29, 10 30 44 AM Photo Jul 29, 3 09 43 PM

Heading into this lesson, I was well aware that we would be working with some pretty challenging ideas. In order to really grasp the interrelated nature of addition and subtraction, children need a somewhat abstract understanding of numbers and also a good early understanding of addition and subtraction. My students were pretty far along in both of those areas, so I decided to challenge them.

I often seek new ways to practice basic skills while simultaneously touching on more advanced concepts. It has become a pillar of my classroom approach. While only a few of my students could competently demonstrate that they understand the relationship between addition and subtraction, I believe the others have been well primed. And they all got some practice counting, breaking numbers apart, and putting numbers together.

Below are links to the (pdf) files I created for this lesson, which you are welcome to download and use in your classroom or with your children.

Reading Activity: “Draw A…”

Last summer, I created a simple drawing activity to encourage my students to practice some literacy skills. I offered a variety of pages with the words “Draw a…” followed by another word or a combination of words. It got my students clamoring for a turn in my reading center, so I decided to expand upon it this year. Again, it was a hit.

The first pages that I made available contained a few simple words, but I soon offered bigger challenges. I selected the words somewhat carefully, incorporating various literacy skills we had previously addressed, such as silent ‘e’ words, digraphs, and sight words. I included some humor, as well. I find that silliness is one of the best ways to engage children with literacy activities.

To kick things off, I briefly introduced the word ‘draw’ as a sight word. Students then did their best to read the remaining words. It wasn’t always easy. Most students required support with at least a few words. However, after struggling to get through each sentence, they were rewarded with a chance to draw. I think this balance between a challenging activity and a fun, relaxing creative activity is in part what has made this lesson successful. Often, when children begin to read sentences, they are overwhelmed by the length of content they encounter, in books and elsewhere. They labor and succeed in reading a whole sentence and the reward is… the subsequent challenging sentence. This drawing activity helps by breaking it up a bit.

Another useful characteristic of this activity: it served as a simple but useful assessment of my students’ literacy skills. I saved what they drew, looked at them after class, and reflected upon which words they needed support to read. I was able to record some rich information.

You can view and download the 11 pages I used for this activity by following this link (pdf).
IMG_2827 IMG_2832

IMG_2926 IMG_2929

IMG_2951 IMG_2927

 IMG_2931 IMG_2890

Tip: ask a child to draw a sad sheep and you’ll probably end up with something adorable.

Probability in Preschool

This summer I decided to take on the challenge of teaching my students about probability. Why, you might ask, would I teach such a difficult concept to such young children?

For one thing, probability is not something that comes naturally to most people. Our brains don’t seem predisposed to think logically about chance. We make mistakes on a regular basis, resulting in more danger and discomfort than we would otherwise endure. If we peer into the world of physics, quantum mechanics tells us that probability is part of the very nature of the universe, a truth that eluded Albert Einstein. (If only he had me as a preschool teacher…)

Despite our less than stellar reputations dealing with chance — ahem, gambling — we use the language of probability all the time. We talk to children about what might happen, or what will probably happen. And every kid is familiar with the dreaded ‘maybe’ response, which usually (probably?) means an impending ‘no’.

Now, I don’t expect my young students to fully grasp the concept of probability. I don’t know whether it’s a concept they can even begin to grasp. But if I want them to get there eventually, an early introduction could be valuable. Perhaps they will benefit from it later in their lives. Similar logic pervades my practice. I often introduce difficult concepts that I do not expect my students will fully comprehend. I tell them that it’s okay if they don’t quite understand, and that they’ll learn more when they’re older. That forward outlook is a part of my approach to teaching.

How Did I Teach Probability?

My method was pretty standard: put a bunch of things in a hat and then repeatedly pull one out. At first, I used differently colored toys. We took turns pulling toys out, while I provided constant reminders about our chances, saying things like, “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we will probably get a blue one, right?”

IMG_2453 IMG_2452

IMG_2451 IMG_2450

Then, we talked events in our lives. We sometimes know what will probably happen, but we can’t always be sure. People often talk about things that might happen and things that maybe will happen. A few examples I brought up are: it might rain today; your balloon might pop; maybe you will win a board game; you might get sick if you eat too much candy.

A Slightly Different Approach

In a follow up lesson, a couple of weeks later, I took a slightly different approach. I wanted to use something more meaningful than colors, so I cut out pictures of cupcakes and banana peels and stuck them to the toys we would be drawing.

We used two different hats this time. We looked at what would be in each hat, and then we made a decision about which hat would give us a better chance of getting a cupcake. Then we took turns drawing from the hat we had chosen. Even though we made good decisions, we still ended up with a banana peel from time to time.


1 Cupcake, 5 Banana Peels vs. 5 Cupcakes, 1 Banana Peel


1 Cupcake, 10 Banana Peels vs. 1 Cupcake, 2 Banana Peels

After many turns drawing cupcakes (“Yay!”) and banana peels (“Oh well”), we talked about another real life example. I asked the kids why we wash our hands. They confidently replied, “So we don’t get sick!” However, I pointed out that we might get sick even when we wash our hands, just like we might get a banana peel even if there are many more cupcakes in the hat. Washing our hands gets rid of germs, which makes it so we probably won’t get sick. It’s kind of like having fewer banana peels in a hat.

How did it go?

With quite a bit of scaffolding, my students were able to demonstrate some early understanding of the concepts. They could determine which items we were most likely to draw, while also recognizing that there is uncertainty — that we may end up with something improbable. Some of our discussions were pretty abstract, especially the discussion of hand washing. I’m not sure if any of that really stuck. It’s hard to say. We have since moved on to other lessons. I haven’t dedicated any time or effort to assessing the depth of understanding we reached. Nevertheless, I consider it a success.

Credit goes to Emily Conover, who convinced me to try this experiment. Check out her blog, Weak Interactions.

Measurement With Wacky Units

We spent a couple of weeks this summer measuring the lengths of various objects in our classroom. We had previously tried a number of measuring activities with simplified inch rulers. My students already understood that longer objects have bigger numbers associated with them. But I want to foster an early understanding that a measurement of length implies some number of equally-sized units stretched end-to-end, and that the number we end up with depends on the size of those individual units.

That’s a pretty abstract concept for a young child, so we made it more concrete. Instead of using inches and centimeters, we measured lengths with crayons, pennies, cups, paper clips, legos, cards, and toy turtles.

IMG_2804   IMG_2803

IMG_2800   IMG_2820

Incorporating Literacy Skills

Because I’m always looking for ways to incorporate literacy skills, we also wrote the words for what we measured. We used this simple page (pdf) to write the measured object, the number of units, and the type of units. It took a little bit of scaffolding at first, but the kids caught on fast.






Inches and Centimeters

Late in the week, we pulled out rulers and tape measures. We looked at how much bigger inches are than the centimeters. That means it takes more centimeters to get from one end of an object to the other, just like it takes more pennies than crayons. With that in mind, we measured a few objects the old fashioned way.

IMG_2840   IMG_2866




Writing Practice With Silly Labels

My classroom’s writing center is usually fairly open-ended. But I often offer specific activities that I hope will spark my students’ interests. Encouraging creativity and silliness is one of the best ways to make writing enjoyable.

A few weeks ago, I took some time to start making silly labels to hang up around the classroom. First, we read “This is a…” together. I introduced those three words as sight words, explaining that we’re going to try to remember the whole words, so that we don’t have to sound them out anymore. By this time of year, most of my students could already easily recognize ‘is’ and ‘a’ with ease, and about half knew ‘this’ as well.

Then, as a group, we chose some classroom objects and thought of some silly ways to misname them. The children helped me figure out what letters we would need to write the words we chose to write.


Do you need a place to sleep?


You didn’t think this was a globe, did you?

The following week, I made these simple labels (pdf) available in the writing center. The children came up with their own ways of labeling things in the room, and they did their best figuring out how to write their chosen words. Most of the labels were goofy, but some were literal, and some were pretty clever. For example, one student labeled a chair as “anteec” (antique). Below are a few of the sillier examples.


This table has a family of baby tables to care for.


It looks like a door, but knock too hard and you might get scratched.


No wonder this thing is so heavy.

By the end of the week, my students had gotten some good practice with phonics skills and writing skills, while making each other laugh. As an added bonus, they are now likely to recognize the word ‘this’ when they see it. It was a very easy activity to put together, well worth the time.

Passive Screen Time Within Educational Apps

As I sift through educational apps, trying to identify the best options for my students, one question often ask is how much children meaningfully interact with a software. How much are they manipulating content, moving things around, and solving problems? How much time is spent watching passively?

There is a tendency among many developers to make apps that have the look and feel of a television show. Children are asked to choose an answer or respond in some way, then they watch a five or ten second animation. Why not? Children like television. It’s rewarding. Perhaps there’s a place for such rewards in educational software.

But if it looks like candy and taste like candy, well maybe it’s candy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently published recommendations for limiting screen time for children. Their perhaps strongest recommendation is to eliminate “television and other entertainment media” for all children under the age of two. There is significant evidence that such media negatively affect a young child’s brain development. For older children, the AAP recommends at most one or two hours per day of “high-quality content” media.

Researchers have begun to draw distinctions between active screen time (e.g., playing video game) and passive screen time (e.g., watching television). Many experts have discussed the potential benefits of playing video games. And some research has compared television to video games and found that video games are favorable. There isn’t yet much data to support any conclusions. But it seems there’s a growing consensus that being active in front of a screen is less harmful and/or more advantageous than being passive.

If we accept that active screen time is broadly favorable, can we then apply that idea to more specific cases? Can we declare that a more interactive app is a better choice? Is an app that has children watch passively 10 percent of the time better than an app that has them watching passively 20 percent of the time? These are important questions, because there is incentive to include videos and animations in apps. Children like them, and whatever children like can be sold, whether or not it educates well. Take a glance at some of the top grossing educational apps and you’ll find examples.

Faced with a lack of definitive answers, I choose to avoid software that looks and acts too much like television. Whether in front of screens or not, I want my students to demonstrate what they understand and what they can create. Children can learn passively, but passive learning rarely fosters the deepest level of understanding.

Sorry kids. I know you like it, but there’s no place for television in my classroom.