#1 Tip for Increasing Student Engagement-FREE and EASY!

How many times do you hear “student engagement” in a staff meeting or PLC? If we turned it into a drinking game, I think we would all need an Uber to get home after the meeting. 

The term gets beat to death, but that’s because it is in fact important.  It really just refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, or passion that students use to approach learning the topic at hand.  That attention, curiosity, interest, or passion also determines the degree of motivation students have…and at the end of the day we all want curious and motivated students.

So, what if I told you that you could increase your student engagement without spending a penny and without changing a single lesson plan? Yep…my number one tip for increasing student engagement is absolutely free and totally easy.  You just have to change your vocabulary.

Start using the word “game” whenever possible.

If the activity has pieces or parts…it’s a game.

If students have to stand or move…it’s a game.

If students take turns…it’s a game.

It’s not a cooperative learning structure…it’s a game.

It’s not a brain break….it’s a game.

It’s not a review…it’s a game.

It’s not an exploratory activity…it’s a game.

Now in your lesson plans, please still use the appropriate term for each type of activity, as we strive to always increase the knowledge base and professionalism that our field deserves.  But with the kids…use the word “game”. There is something subconscious in students that perks up when they start thinking through the lens of playing versus learning. The word “game” is associated with fun and students who are having fun are paying attention. They are curious. They are interested. They are passionate. And they are motivated.

Just try it….the next time you introduce something as a game, look across the faces of your students and count the smiles!

Of course it never hurts to back up all your game talk, with some traditional games as well!  Here are a few to try…

Click on the photo to learn more.
Click on the photo to learn more.


From Pivot to Pivotal

I know we have all seen this image so many times in the past few months, but here is my twist on this overused term…

The next time someone throws a “pivot” at you, remember that they are really telling you that YOU are PIVOTAL. While our friend Ross is yelling the verb form which means to change direction, PIVOTAL means “of crucial importance in relation the development or success of something new”.

Educators are indeed PIVOTAL. The “development and success” of this year depends on YOU. YOU are of “crucial importance” to our society, your community, and most importantly your students! How could this year be any thing less than phenomenal when it lies in the hands of pivotal educators like us! We’ve got this!


10 Things Teachers Can Do in July to Make a Better Back to School

How fast do those weeks of summer fly by? We no more than get our classrooms closed down at the end of one year before it seems like we are greeting a whole new batch of little learners! Here are my tips for making the most of those summer weeks to help the back to school transition go a little more smoothly.

  1. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. The teachers I know lose so much sleep during the year fretting over their students. They worry about the one that was sad that day, the one that didn’t do as well on a test as he/she should have, the one that keeps forgetting his lunch. In the summer, the only kids you have to worry about are your biological ones. Make time for solid sleep.
  2. Read one book OF YOUR OWN CHOOSING for professional growth. In the summer, you have time to absorb and digest your reading. Choose a book on a topic that interests YOU and revel in the joy of being a learner.
  3. Read books just for fun. We spend so much time during the school year, helping students pick just the right book, now it’s your turn. Enjoy a great story and the adventure of being transported to a different world.
  4. Declutter. Teachers are notorious savers. We save things long after they are useful. Find at least 5 things that you haven’t used this past school year and throw them out.
  5. Play with one new digital tool for the classroom. You know there is always something new, so be proactive and play around with the “new toy” over the summer, so you can hit the ground running.
  6. Let creativity run wild. During the school year, and especially at the beginning of the year, there is a ton of data to be gathered, analyzed, and processed which often takes precedent over creative thinking. Use those hours of lounging by the pool to let your creative brain have fun and dream of ways to pump up the fun and excitement for you students. Keep a voice note or notebook handy to write down your inspirations.
  7. Go shopping. Remember the excitement of back-to-school clothes shopping when you were a kid? Rekindle that. Every teacher needs one new outfit for Open House to boost confidence and feel like a million bucks.
  8. Send a post card to your new students. You know how deep your relationship with students will be by Christmas, but those very first interactions are always a little awkward. Take some of the pressure off that first meeting by making it early. Include a sweet message and photo of yourself so that you are automatically a friendly and familiar face when you meet in person for the first time.
  9. Find the yearbook from your first year of teaching. This is a great trip down memory lane and it will remind you of how much you have grown as an educator (even if you are still fairly new). Take inventory of all the skills you’ve developed, the accomplishments you’ve achieved and pat yourself on the back.
  10. Prayer and positive thoughts. Start praying for your new students now and for the time you will have with them. Put positive thoughts out there and practice the psychology of fulfilling prophecies!

Whatever you do, just do you and enjoy time to reconnect with yourself. Taking care of YOU and indulging in self-care is the best thing you can do to prepare for year ahead. You’ve got this!


Eliminating the Work from Paperwork

Teachers across the nation struggle with keeping an overwhelming number of papers organized.  Whether you teach kindergarten or high school, you no doubt have piles that need to be kept and dealt with at a later date, but no one systems works for everyone.  The trick is the find the system that works for you.  Here is a list of my favorite ideas, tips, and hacks for keeping student work to be graded and copies of worksheets for upcoming lessons in easy to find systems.  Our class time is so valuable for wasting time sorting through piles and our family time is too important to lose anytime to shifting papers around the dining room table.  Hope you find a solution that works for you!

My personal system is a combination of several strategies.

  • First, I keep one tub for each day of the week that is large enough to hold 8.5 x 11 paper flat.  I like a tub without a lid so that it can hold more than paper.  As a prep a unit I can put in student copies of papers, manipulatives for math lessons, and supplies for science labs.
  • To keep my units organized I use a binder for each unit with a pocket divider in the front that holds task cards and game pieces.
  • To eliminate papers piles wating to be graded I hightly recommend grading smarter, grade them while you are sitting at the teacher table.  This has multiple benefits.  First, you are not trying to track them down to grade later. Second, it keeps kids focused because they know they can’t leave your table until it’s finished. Third, and most beneficial, the students get immediate feedback.  Reteaching and additional practice happens right away.  Finally, I can hand it back right away and have the student file it their take home folder saving me from spending my time to do that later. I know some of you are thinking about homework, which is a topic for another day but I assign very little and don’t take more than a completion grade on it.
  • For those papers that can’t be graded immediately, I keep one tray.  My rule is that it has to be empty by Friday or I have to put some of it in the “special file” (a.k.a. the trash can).  No one has ever asked me for a paper that went to the special file!
  • For graded papers, I use a file box with a folder for each child, in alphabetical order and quickly file those for kids to take home at the end of the day or week.

Here are a few more creative ways to think about paper management from other amazing teachers!

Using drawers

Using craft boxes

Using Technology

For Middle School


The Wonder of a Box

A friend of mine just replaced her dishwasher and refrigerator, but the educator in me was way more excited about the boxes that the appliances came in. Especially with the open-ended days of summer ahead of us. The boxes hold all the potential in the world to take kids on limitless adventures.

One of my favorite activities for boxes came from a youtube video called Caine’s Arcade. It’s the true story of Caine, a little boy who turned the boxes from his dad’s auto parts store into games for people to play, and the inspired adult who wanted to celebrate Caine’s creativity. My co-teacher and I loved the idea so much that we took some time after standardized testing to let our students explore their creativity and do some open-ended problem solving to create a 3rd and 4th grade cardboard arcade. Some of those students are now in high school and recall that as a favorite memory of their time in my class. I’ve posted the lesson plans for the arcade as a freebie for the month of June.

What else could students do with a box? Here is a very incomplete list. Add to it in the comments with your favorite creative uses for a box:

  • Build an arcade game
  • Make a time machine
  • Make a reading nook
  • Life-size gingerbread house
  • Build a car
  • Fly it like a plane
  • Play astronaut and spaceship
  • Slide on it down a hill
  • Use it for painting a masterpiece
  • Build an ark for stuffed animals
  • Build a castle
  • Turn it into a mini man-cave
  • Set up business as a food-truck
  • Make it into an igloo
  • Make a Halloween costume
  • Build a robot