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Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Several months ago at a workshop a teacher asked, “Do you have any good ideas for developing critical thinking? I always get marked down for that when I am observed.” Now, that was a good question, and I love a challenge. I’ve been using critical thinking myself to write this blog. I hope it will be useful to you.
What is CRITICAL THINKING? What is “love”? What is “good”? The very term “critical thinking” suggests a wide variety of responses and diverse opinions. When we discuss helping children develop critical thinking skills we are talking about helping them learn to think. It’s the opposite of “yes” “no” questions. It’s more than just spouting out facts. Critical thinking is open-ended, complex, and can have multiple responses. It’s getting children to think independently and to think outside the box.

From the moment of birth children take in information, respond to information, use that information, and begin to think critically. Children (and adults) use critical thinking every day!

When children solve problems…

When children make comparisons…

When children make decisions and think about the consequences…

When children make connections…

When children evaluate…

They are developing critical thinking skills.

Educators and parents can nurture critical thinking skills in many ways.

Encourage curiosity. Give children interesting materials, time to explore, and freedom.

Invite children to ask questions and evaluate how they could do something differently.
Encourage children to “think out loud.” That will give you insight into where they are and where you need to lead them.

Provide opportunities for children to work with others and talk about their ideas.

Respect children’s answers. Judging or criticizing their responses will inhibit their creativity and unique perspective.

Ask WHAT questions. What happened? What do you think will happen if…? What would you do? What will happen next…?  What do you think about...?

Ask HOW questions.  How is ____ like ____?  How are they different?  How would you...?

Ask WHY questions.  Why did ____?

If you’ve read this blog YOU have been using your CRITICAL THINKING skills!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Asking children to recall and retell information throughout the day is a simple, yet powerful way to boost brain power.
Right Now! Right Now!
Several times a day call out in an enthusiastic voice:
Right now, right now, right now, right now! (Children freeze.)
Who can tell me something they’ve learned that they didn’t know when they came in the classroom this morning. (Point to random children to tell you something they’ve learned. This will be difficult at first, but keep doing it and they will improve.)

Partner Share – Children turn to a friend or study buddy and retell a story, reteach a lesson, etc.

Catch and Tell – Toss a ball, beanbag, or wadded up sheet of paper to a student. That student tells something she learned and then tosses it back to you. Continue tossing the ball to other students.
Recall Chant – End the day by going around the room as you say this chant to each child:
Hey, Hey, what do you say?
What did you learn in school today?
(Children say what they learned.)

Microphone - Pass a play microphone around the room as each students says something they learned.
*Let them pretend to be news reporters as they state the "facts" of what they did at school.
Good for You – Children pat themselves on the back as they tell what they learned or what they did that made them feel proud.

Kiss Your Brain – Write “Kiss Your Brain!” on a poster and tape it to your door. Before children leave for the day they must say something they learned and then kiss their brains.

Catch a Star
Ask children to think of something new they learned or something they did that made them feel proud. Tell them to reach up and grab a star and then put it in their hearts.

Close Your Eyes and Smile
Have children close their eyes. If they can see something new they learned they can open their eyes and smile at you.

Fist List
Children make a fist and then hold up a finger for each new thing they learned that day.      


Monday, August 29, 2016


You know I’m a sucker for anything about the brain. If the word “brain” is in the title of a book or magazine article, I’m all over it. Why? The brain is where learning takes place. The more we know about the brain, the more effective we can be as educators. (I’m smiling because the more I read about the brain the more I realize a lot of this is common sense.) However, brain research validates best practices that good teachers have always employed.
"Boosting Your Brainpower" was an article from Reader's Digest that I read several years ago. As the new school year begins it might be helpful to review strategies that can help improve your students' brains - and maybe yours as well!

The Importance of Short Term Memory
Initial research seems to indicate that memory training can actually boost IQ. Eric Kandel of Columbia University shared, “If you really work on memory by, for instance, memorizing poetry…” I shouldn’t take this out of context, but it makes sense that finger plays, songs, chants, and nursery rhymes are natural ways to develop short-term memory in young children.

Pay Attention, Get Smart
Attention is another brain element that you can train. Hocus, pocus, everybody focus! If you tell the brain it’s important and to listen it will do it!

Aerobic Exercise
Exercise for the body and exercise for the brain. You learn on your feet, not on your seat!
Researchers have found “that a midday nap may not merely restore brain power but also raise it.” Children need a quiet time every day. You don’t have to put out cots or mats, but 10-15 minutes with the lights off and peaceful music would be like a breath of fresh air for those little brains that are working so hard.

A Second Language
“The workout the prefrontal cortex gets in bilingualism carries over to other functions…” That is really good news for children who have different languages in their home. It’s also powerful support for teaching children a second language at school.

Write by Hand
Swiping across a screen will never replace picking up a pencil. When children write by hand it activates many areas of the brain and can improve writing fluency.

Feed the Brain
Fish, fruits, and dark leafy vegetables are particularly good choices. (Sorry, caffeine and fried foods are not on the list!)

Use Visual Concepts
Photos, charts, graphs and other visual information help people remember. Let children draw their own figures and charts and use colors to highlight main ideas.

Teach Someone Else
Having students review information, summarize, or teach a friend can help them remember a lot better.


Sunday, August 28, 2016


There are some things I just cannot part with…such as my favorite books I loved to read to my children. Like anything, the teacher adds the magic to a book. If you love a book, then I can guarantee you that your enthusiasm will make your listeners love it as well.

When Kalina visited this summer I got out my “antique” collection to share with her. I just couldn’t let her grow up and not know about Ping or Sylvester or Sal. The world has changed, but Kalina and I delighted/devoured/enjoyed/savored/appreciated the books as if it time had stopped.  Reading these books was like giving her a little bit of my life.
The funny thing is that as I was reading the books I looked at them through my “standard” lenses. I didn’t realize when I read Morris the Moose books that I was introducing double meanings of words. Chicken Soup with Rice was perfect for phonological awareness and Ping showed what life is like on the Yangtze River. We counted the dogs in Madeline, Sylvester was exploding with vocabulary, and we recalled the sequence of events in The Mitten. It is true that you can still teach children everything with a good book. But, I didn’t have to TEACH Kalina with the books – she just learned in a natural and meaningful way.






Good books are like good friends that you want to visit again and again!

Saturday, August 27, 2016


Is, “Shhhhhh!” not working? Well, here are a few tricks for you to try!
Tootsie Roll
Tootsie roll, (Roll hands around each other.)
Lollipop. (Pretend to lick a lollipop.)
We’ve been talking, (Open and shut fingers.)
Now let’s stop! (Make sign language sign for “stop.”)
Hocus Pocus
Teacher says:
“Hocus Pocus!” (Stick out index finger and circle around like a wand.)
Children respond:
“Everybody focus!” (Make circles around eyes like spectacles.)
Student Heroes
5-4-3-2-1-zero (Hold up hand and put down one finger at a time.)
I’m looking for my 
student heroes. 
(Make circles with index fingers and thumbs and placearound eyes like glasses.)

Give Me a Clap
(Tune: “Addams Family”)
Give me a clap. (Clap twice.) Give me a clap. (Clap twice.)
Give me a clap, give me a clap,
Give me a clap. (Clap twice.)
Give me a snap. (Snap twice.) Give me a snap. (Snap twice.)
Now fold your hands and put them down
Into your lap. (Model putting your hands in your lap.)
How Does My Teacher Feel about Me?
Teacher says: How does my teacher feel about me?”
Children respond: I’m as special as special can be (Sparkle fingers.)
because my teacher believes in me! (Hug self.)

Secret Signals
Explain that your class will have some secret signals that no one else knows. 

1.  When you say “one”, they should sit criss-cross applesauce.
2.  When you say “two,” they need to put their hands in their lap.
3.  On “three,” they put a smile on their face.
*Make up additional secret numbers, such as “four” stand up straight and “five” hands by sides.

Everybody Have a Seat (Tune: “Shortnin’ Bread”)
Everybody have a seat, have a seat, have a seat.
Everybody have a seat on the floor.
Not on the ceiling, not on the door.
Everybody have a seat on the floor.

*If you want children to sit on a chair change the words and sing,
“Everybody have a seat on your chair. Not on the window, not in the air. Everybody have a seat on your chair.”

If You’re Ready to Get Started

(Tune: “If You’re Happy and You Know It”)
If you’re ready to get started say, I AM! (Children say, “I am!”)
If you’re ready to get started say, I AM! (Children say, “I am!”)
If you say that you’re not,
You’re going to miss out on a lot.
If you’re ready to get started say, I AM! (Children say, “I am!)

Criss Cross
Criss cross, (Sit on floor and cross legs.)
Be your own boss. (Fold your arms and nod head.)

Sitting Chant
1, 2, 3, 4 - glue your bottoms to the floor.
5, 6, 7, 8 - hands to yourself and sit up straight.

Peace and Quiet
Make the “peace” sign with one hand as you put the index finger from the other hand on your mouth.
Music Box
Play a music box to indicate to the children it’s time to get quiet.
*One teacher said she wound up the music box at the end of the day and challenged the children to get quiet quickly so there would still be music at the end of the day.

Blow bubbles and see if the children can be sitting quietly before all the bubbles pop.
Magic Clap
The teacher begins a clapping pattern which the students try to repeat.

Can children sing the alphabet backwards and be sitting quietly by the time you get to A?

Here’s a video where you can watch me demonstrate many of these attention grabbers.

Friday, August 26, 2016


There was a song years ago called “My Little Hands Keep Moving.” Times have changed, but those little hands are still moving and wiggling and squirming! Instead of saying, “Put your hands in your lap and listen to me,” try one of these “handy” tricks.
                                      Smart Hands
When I was in kindergarten 100 years ago (not really – only 64) Mrs. Meyers taught us to fold our hands and put them in our laps. Do you know this still works? One teacher demonstrated folding her hands as she told her students, “These are smart hands that will help you listen and learn.”
Talk to Your Hands 
If children are wiggling their hands, ask them to please talk to their hands and tell them to be quiet. 

Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Lap
(Tune: “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”)
Head, shoulders, knees and lap, knees and lap.
Head, shoulders, knees and lap, knees and lap.
Legs are criss-cross applesauce.
And my hands are in my lap, lap, lap.

I am looking.
What do I see?
I see (student, class) sitting (standing, whatever you need)
Hint! Lower your voice each time you say this until children are quiet.

Hand Poem (Barb Williams)
Hands up high. (Hands in the air.)
Hands down low. (Hands down.)
Hide those hands, now. (Hands behind your back.)
Where did they go? (Shrug shoulders.)
One hand up. (Right hand up.)
The other hand, too. (Left hand up.)
Clap them, (Clap.)
Fold them, (Fold in lap.)
Now we’re through!

Class Callbacks (Sara Quinn)
Teacher says: Hands on top. (Students put their hands on their heads.)
Students say: That means stop!
Teacher says: Holy Moly!
Students say: Guacamole!
Teacher says: All set?
Students say: You bet!

*You can go on all day with callbacks. Marco - Polo; Peanut Butter - jelly; Criss cross – sit like a boss, etc.

Self Control (Becky Gilsdorf)
Use this visual cue to help children who are out of control.
Cross hands over your chest. (Self)
Slide both hands down the sides of your body. (Control)
As the child repeats the movements silently it will calm them down.

Brain Toys
Get a box or basket and write “brain toys” on it. ("Brain toys" sounds so much more positive than "fidget toys.")Tie some old socks in a knot and place them in the box. If children have a difficult time keeping their hands to themselves “invite” them to get a brain toy. Wouldn’t you rather a child knot and unknot a sock than poke or pick?

Check out the webinar Vanessa Levin ( and I did on finger plays to learning more positive ways keep those little hands engaged.    

Thursday, August 25, 2016


What? What did you say? Do you feel like some of your students are “teacher deaf” because they never seem to listen to you? Learning to listen (auditory memory and auditory discrimination) is a key to being a good student. Let’s see how we can work on this…

Mystery Sounds - Ask children to close their eyes. Walk around the room making different noises (open the door, ring a bell, sharpen a pencil) while children identify what you are doing.

Sound Walk - Take the children on a “silent” nature walk. Challenge them to remember all the sounds that they can hear. Make a list of all the sounds when you return to the classroom.

Story Sounds - Invite the children to add sounds as you read a story. Prompt them before you read by telling them to roar for the dinosaur, squeak for the mouse, or snap for rain.

Animal Sounds - Learning animal sounds is a natural way to develop language and listening skills. Sing songs such as “Old MacDonald” and play “Guess Who I Am?” where children make animal noises for their friends to identify.
Whisper Wednesday - Sometimes children are overwhelmed by too much noise in the classroom. Why not try “Whisper Wednesday” where you whisper all day long?

Gossip - Have children sit in a circle. Whisper a simple message in the first child’s ear. That child passes the message to the person sitting next to them and so on around the circle. The last child repeats what she heard, which is usually far from the original whisper.

Perfect Pitch - Hum a note and ask children to join in. Vary the pitch from high to low. You can also use a xylophone or other class instrument to play this game.

Name That Tune – Demonstrate how to play this game by humming the tune to familiar songs. Let children take turns humming tunes as their classmates guess the name of the song.
To Grandmother’s House We Go -Place 5-10 objects on a table or shelf in a far corner of the room. Have your class sit with you in the opposite corner of the room. Take a basket or grocery sack and that they are going to get to take turns going to grandmother’s house. “We’re going to pretend that grandmother lives over there in the other side of the room.” One at a time select a child to go to grandmother’s. Give her the bag and name one things that you want her to get for you at grandmother’s. Explain that you’ll only tell her one time, so she’ll have to listen very carefully. Instruct the rest of the class to sit quietly so they can remember to see if she gets the right thing. The child skips across the room, selects the named object, puts it in the bag, and returns to the teacher. Cheer if she remembers the correct object.
Hint!  Start with one object and make it increasingly difficult by adding more objects or descriptive words. For example, “Bring me something that is red and grows on a tree.” “Bring me the book, the block, and the blue crayon.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Learning to monitor one’s voice is part of speaking and listening standards and essential to every day life. Here are a few strategies to help children become more aware of appropriate times to use a loud and soft voice.

Picture Cues
How about having a picture of a lion, a mouse, and a child. When they can talk in a regular voice put up the child. When you want them to use a whisper voice post the mouse, and when they can use a loud voice (like when they go outside) put up the lion.
Songs, Chants, Poems - Practice singing songs or saying rhymes with a “lion,” “mouse,” or “normal” voice.

Quiet Friends
Put several small character toys in a lunch box. Explain that you have little friends in the lunch box who have teeny tiny ears. They can only come up if the children use teeny tiny voices. Take the friends out as you begin using a whisper voice. If the children get too loud say, “Oh, I’ll have to put our little friends back in the box because you’re hurting their ears.” You’ll be amazed how quiet they will be!

Cell Phone – Demonstrate loud and soft with the volume control on a phone or the computer.

Alphabet Conductor
– Explain to the children that you will be the conductor as they sing the alphabet song. When your hands are close together they should whisper, but as your hands get farther apart they should sing louder. As you bring your hands closer together they should lower their voices to a whisper.

Volume Button - Use a cylinder block for a microphone. Attach a sticky dot for a volume button. Pass the “microphone” around the room for the children to say “Good morning!” or another simple phrase. Remind them to turn the volume up if their voice is too soft. Turn the volume down if their voice is too loud.
Simon Says – Play “Simon Says” as you ask children to clap, stomp, or make other noises loud or soft.
Simon says clap loud.
Simon says clap soft.
Simon says hum loud.
Simon says hum soft.
Stomp loud. Oops! Simon didn’t say!

Musical Instruments
– Place several musical instruments (drum, sticks, triangle, etc.) on the floor. Children close their eyes, listen, and describe if you made a loud or soft noise. They could raise their hand if the noise is loud or keep their hand in their lap if it is soft.

Three Cheers
Teacher says: Give me cheer number one. (Hold up one finger.)
Children cheer loudly.
Teacher says: Give me cheer number two. (Hold up two fingers.)
Children cheer a little softer.
Teacher says: Give me cheer number three. (Hold up 3 fingers.)
Children give a silent cheer.

Henry Hush
(Hold up your index finger as you sing this song to the tune of “London Bridge.”)
Henry Hush says,
“Please be quiet.” (Pretend index finger is Henry.)
“Please be quiet.”
“Please be quiet.”
Henry Hush says, “Please be quiet.”
Shh! Shh! Shh! (Finger on lips as you lower your voice.)

*Hint! My kids got a kick out of Henry when I drew him on my finger.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


When most teachers are asked what they look for in good students, they will respond, “I want students who can listen and follow directions.” And, that’s why I want to focus on listening skills the next few days. As children spend more time in front of a screen, it’s important to slow down at the beginning of the school year to develop positive listening skills.

Turn it off! Turn off the big screen and get down at the children’s eye level and look at them.
Engage them! Get their attention with a finger play or a cheer.
*Teacher: Hocus pocus. (Pretend to wave a magic wand.)
Children: Everybody focus. (Children make imaginary goggles and put them around their eyes.)

Wait. Sit quietly and smile and wait.
*Close your eyes and pretend to wave a magic wand. Say, “Abracadabra. I will open my eyes when all my friends are sitting quietly.”

Lower your voice. By simply talking slowly with a quiet voice you will remind the children that it’s time to listen.
*Lip sinc a song or finger play like “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Anything different or original will give children “pause.”

Busy Hands - Give them something to do with their hands. Demonstrate how to cross your fingers and put your “listening hands” in your lap.
*Thumbs up. (Put up one thumb.)
Across the chest. (Stretch fist to the opposite shoulder.)
Pat on the back. (Pat back.)
Cause you’re the best. (Hug self with both arms.)

Pretzels and Applesauce – If children are sitting on their bottoms they will be less likely to squirm around.
Hint! I explain that the doctor said it’s important to sit with their legs like pretzels. If the “doctor says” they are more likely to respond. (This is true because orthopedists warn sitting on the knees can be harmful.)

Sitter Spot – Cut circles out of fun foam or felt and write children’s names on them. Place these in a circle and have the children find the “sitter spot” with their name.
*This is a good technique to separate children who might cause trouble!

Body Check. Remind children to listen with their eyes, ears, and bodies.
*Teacher: Are your eyes looking at me?
Children: Check!
Teacher: Are your ears ready to listen?
Children: Check!
Teacher: Are your bodies sitting quietly?
Children: Check!
Teacher: Are you ready to learn?
Children: Check!

Breath – Tell children to slowly breath in and out their noses. It’s surprising how this will calm them – and they won’t be able to talk!

Spotlight – Use a flashlight to “focus” on a child who is sitting quietly.
*You can also sing, “If you don’t know what to do look at _____” to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

Signs - Run off a copy of a giant ear and tape it to a stick. When you hold up the ear children know they need to listen with big ears!
Repeat - Practice giving directions ONE time. Invite another student to repeat what you have said.

Close Your Eyes – Have children close their eyes as you give directions. Who can open their eyes and repeat what you said?
*Occasionally, have children close their eyes when you read a story. Can they make pictures in their brain?
*Invite children to sing songs or say nursery rhymes with their eyes closed.

Did you read something today that you’d like to try tomorrow? Have you got a new trick to share with me?

Monday, August 22, 2016


Several weeks ago when I was in Manchester, NH, I met Ginny McLay and was inspired by her love of vocabulary. Here are two of her ideas that you might want to include in your plans for the upcoming year. Wouldn’t that vocabulary word costume be perfect for a boring winter week?
Vocabulary Word Costume!
After focusing on words (synonyms, antonyms, nouns, verbs, and adjectives) invite children to think of a word that they LOVE, ADORE, AND ADMIRE and create a costume for their word.

Easy steps to make a costume!
     1. Think of a few words that are really interesting.
     2. Choose a word that you can make into a costume.
     3. The word and definition must be somewhere on the costume.
     4. Practice the word and definition
     My word is _____. It means:_________.

Ideas for costumes:
     1. Write the word and definition on a headband.
     2. Write the word and definition on a piece of paper and make a necklace out of it.
     3. Write the word and definition on a t-shirt and decorate with fabric paint.
     4. Write the word and definition on a brown paper bag…cut it like a vest!
     5. Use a costume you already have at home and think of a great word. Write the word and definition on a sash.
              MYSTERIOUS                                        CELEBRATE

Great reads for vocabulary include:
Miss Alaineus – A Vocabulary Disaster by Debra Frasier
Fancy Nancy Books
Max’s Words by Kate Banks

Multiple Meaning Words Castle
Put a large poster of a castle on a classroom wall. Whenever the children discover a “multiple meaning word” write it on the castle. The teacher goes, “Dut dut do” with a hand over her mouth and then every chants: “IT’S A MULTIPLE MEANING WORD!”

HINT! If a child thinks she has a multiple meaning word she must be able to tell both meanings. You might need to use a dictionary to confirm if it has double meanings.

Here's Ginny's email address if you want some more ideas for vocabulary: