Sunday, August 5, 2012


I’ve taught for quite a few years and I’ve learned that no matter how wonderful an activity is, there is much a teacher needs to bring to it that, in my opinion, goes unsaid in most lesson plans and ideas. A few years ago, I mentored a group of teachers who were interested in learning more about brain-compatible instruction and about ways of increasing relevance for their students.  A couple of teachers would try the things we worked on in our weekly meetings and would come back to report less than stellar results when others were reporting the opposite. Finally, I went in to observe some teachers who were reporting success and some who weren’t. I quickly realized the problem.  Although everyone was implementing the activities correctly, some teachers went no farther than implementing the activity itself. 

 I asked one particular teacher what she had learned about her students and about what they knew/didn’t know from observing their involvement in the activity. She wasn’t sure what I meant and so I explained to her what I was thinking and observing during the lesson (who was on or off task, who got the “point” of the activity and who needed me to ask a leading question or two, who wanted me to tell them the answer, who didn’t do anything at all, who seemed to have a misconception that needed addressing ….) She said to me, “ I was just trying to implement the activity correctly; I didn’t know I should be watching for those things!" 

Her comment caused me to stop and reflect on my own teaching practices and how to make what seems apparent to me apparent to everyone else, whether it be a teacher I am mentoring or a class full of students I’m teaching. As I share some of the activities and lessons I’m using, I’ll try to remember to share some of the “hidden parts” of the lesson. For most of you, it will be things you are already thinking or doing; for one or two of us, it might make the reason behind the lesson a bit more apparent. I know it will help me as well as it will remind me of what my overt and covert intentions are and will help me focus more intently on those goals.

All of us best process information in one (or more) of several ways; one category of those are our visual learners. I enjoy using this activity to see who in my classes tend to be good at picking up information visually.  I’ve used it on and off for years and have no idea where I got it. I do know that it was intended to be more of a brain challenge, but I use it in the way I’ve described above.  I use the Sherlock activity to begin a discussion about how we all might learn a little differently and to talk about our learning styles and preferences.
Sherlock 1

I hand out the first picture of Sherlock Holmes’ room and ask students to observe it for a bit of time (I’ve tried 3 minutes and 5 minutes… adjust the time to fit your particular students). At the end of the time, I collect the pictures and I give them the blank one with the questions. I then give them a period of time to draw in the objects as they remember them. At the end of the time, I project the original diagram on the Smart Board and have students circle all the ones they got correct. We then begin a discussion about ways we like to learn and that even though someone may have got very few correct, if I gave them a similar activity where I described where everything was, they might get them all correct – we all simply learn best in different ways. And that’s okay.  I want to set a tone of openness and acceptance as we all discuss how many we got correct and how we feel we learn best.  Finally, I ask the students to reflect on their own preferred ways to learn and I have them write me a short paragraph telling me how they feel they learn best and telling me how I can best help them this year. This will be their exit slip.Sherlock 2

Now, here’s what I do while my kids are busy… I’m watching and learning. I’m learning sooooo much about my students, about my class make-up, about how each particular class relates to their fellow students … Here’s what I’m watching for…..

1.        Are all the students involved? Who is looking around the class or out the window (or whatever) instead of participating in the activity?
2.       Who is very focused and studying the diagram intently?
3.       Who simply HAS to talk with his or her neighbor as they process what to do or process how many he or she got correct?
4.       Who has to check in with me to see if they’re doing it correctly?
5.       Who seems to want to sit back and observe what everyone else is doing before they jump in?
6.       Who calls out comments as they’re working?
7.       Which students simply can’t concentrate for the short time period you give them to study the diagram? What are they doing? Getting up? Beginning conversations? Fiddling with their “stuff”?
8.       As I walk by to see how the students are doing, who wants to talk with me or show me something? Who wants to simply work without interruption?
9.       As we discuss our findings, who wants to share? Who seems to want to add their comments more than expected?
10.   Which students try to steer the discussion off topic?
11.   Which students don’t share at all?

Now, check the writing the students do for the exit slip.
1.       Which students write well? Poorly? Who struggles to communicate their thoughts?
2.       Which students invested themselves in the writing task? Who sort of blew it off?
3.       Were students able to stay on topic or did they meander all over the place?
4.       Who didn’t write anything at all?

By the end of class, I have a pretty good feel for the class as a whole and for my individual students. I’ve already discovered some potential challenges I might have with each class and I’ve begun thinking ways I might structure each class to help with those challenges. Tomorrow, when we talk about class norms, routines, and expected behaviors, I already know where I might need to focus a little differently with each class. I know which of my classes are more social, which might need more prodding during discussions and which classes have students who need a little more help (and I already have an idea of who it might be best to pair them with). All in all, a very fun and productive first day activity!


  1. Welcome to blogging! I'm so glad you joined us!

  2. I think that your comment about making "hidden" things in our practice more apparent when explaining them to others is so on point. Too often, we have our own assumptions and ways we do things so embedded that it doesn't occur to communicate them to someone else, who is operating under a totally different set of assumptions and is therefore going to interpret our plans completely differently. Such an important consideration for those of us who work with other teachers - thank you!

  3. LOVE all these different 1st day activities. Some do rules/procedures, some do math, some do other activities! Will definitely keep this as a resource for my study hall period :)

  4. I really appreciate your thoughtful approach to your teaching. Too often, I get caught up in what I or my students are doing, and I don't think to analyze what their responses tell me about them. While I think I do fairly well identifying the characteristics you mention in your questions, it is definitely done on more of an instinctual/ad-hoc basis. I really like the idea of making it a more thoughtful and intentional study of their responses. If nothing else, I will definitely be more aware as I get to know my new students. Thank you for an inspiring, thought-provoking post.

  5. I really love your approach to teaching and blogging. This reminded me of a recent post Make room.

    And, as i often tell my students, I want to see how they think....they know I'm watching. :-)

  6. This is really insightful...going to try to incorporate it!

  7. I'm sad I didn't read this before school started. I would have loved to use this as one of my first week activities. Consider this post bookmarked. :)

  8. I really enjoyed the ideas you shared. Your Sherlock Holmes activity looks as though it came out of some book. Can you point me to the original source? Thanks so much!

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