Active Learners are Successful Learners

We often joke that during staff meetings teachers display behaviors they don’t tolerate in their classes.  You know the scene: restlessness, doodling, squirming and whispering.  What about when you spend the whole day at a meeting?  Do you often find that you’re more tired after a day of sitting and listening than one full of the business of teaching?

Well there’s a good reason for both of these phenomenon.  The human body is not designed to sit for long periods of time; yet, that is exactly what it does in school.  In  Brain Rules (2008) brain researcher John Medina states that “physical activity is cognitive candy” and that “exercise boosts brain power”.   In fact, study after study points to the same conclusion: learners need to move.  But is this research  just about kinesthetic learners?  Definitely not, for we all benefit from moving and stretching.  It gets the blood flowing, it boosts creativity, and it breaks up the monotony of sitting in those hard old seats!

I’m lucky to teach with some creative and inspiring teachers who use lots of movement in their classes.  One physics and math teacher has a trunk full of toys and games that get students moving as they learn about the principles of physics. If you walk by his class on the right day, you might even witness students in egg throwing contests.  His most popular game, though, is in his math class, where enthusiastic students play “Sig Fig Says” to learn about significant figures.  Another math teacher has a chin up bar hanging from the ceiling so students can take action breaks, and a biology teacher has exercise  balls for students to sit on so as to better engage their core.  Others have taken students paint-balling to re-enact battles in WWII or the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.   The students in these classes clearly have lots of opportunity to move to learn.

ggpicRecently I’ve been experimenting with some “grammar games”.  I created cards containing parts of sentences that, when put together, form a grammatically correct sentence.  I hand out the cards and then students have to find matches to help them complete their sentences.  They have a great time running around the classroom, trying to be among the first to get a match.  It makes grammar a little more fun, and I can give them immediate feedback without having to correct a bunch and exercises.

However, do you have to go to great lengths to get your students’ bodies and brains moving?  Do you have to spend hours thinking up crazy lesson plans and field trips?  No, because there are some very simple ideas that you can use every day.  The simplest is to just allow students to stand up and stretch half way through the class.  Or, when they do group work, tape a piece of chart paper on the wall so they have to do their work standing up.  If you’re comfortable letting them leave the room, send them for a walk ‘n talk as they discuss their ideas.  Send them in pairs or small groups for a walk around the school, or outside on the school grounds.

With some very easy-to-use techniques, you can get your students out of their seats, their energy level up and the blood flowing to their brains.  Not only will you have happier students, but you many have more successful ones too.  I’d say it’s worth a try!

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Jackie Cutcliffe (Room 213) teaches high school English in Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow her at Real Learning in Room 213

TPT is having a sale!

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and we want to share the products that we are most excited about!  Most often they are ones that we love to use in our own classrooms.  Have a look at our collaborator’s favorite products:

EllenBrain7 (1)Ellen Weber of  Brain Based Learning Success loves her 100 Whole Brain Graphic Organizers.  She says that these flexible student-ready organizers allow students to link content to their own interests, and assume full leadership in class, as well as master the common core standards. They can be used individually or in teams and can be submitted or kept as cheat sheets for test preparation. They are all designed to store digitally or in a blinder – for continued use. All come listed in a table of contents that shows page numbers for easy access. Created for right and left brain activity, the organizers include my best tools for encouraging all students to speak up and feel heard in my classes.


Both Kim and her students love her Trashketball Games.  She says that with this bundle of power point games, you will engage your students in learning grammar!  Games review the following: Parts of Speech, Sentence Parts, Sentence Structures, Sentence Problems, Prepositional Phrases, Appositive Phrases, Verbal Phrases (infinitives, gerunds, participles), and Commas.  All that you will need is the ability to project a power point presentation, a ball, and a trash can.  After teaching each concept, use these games as guided practice. Follow each with independent practice and watch your students improve their skills. If you teach grammar concepts weekly, this bundle will provide you with eight weeks of fun activities!

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Tara, of Science in the City, is excited about her Weathering Erosion and Deposition Unit Pack.  This is a complete unit package, including an introductory activity, assessments, and hands-on activities.  The activities use commonly available materials, and will allow your students to understand, apply, and demonstrate their knowledge of weathering and erosion.  Watch your students get excited about weathering and erosion, and be able to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom.

Mrs. Brosseau's Binder

Mrs Brosseau’s Binder is full of great ideas, but her favorite is her Physical & chemical Properties Changes PowerPoint.  She loves this 3-day package of notes because it includes everything you need: a PowerPoint file that corresponds to the notes and practice pages throughout.  Great graphics, video links and corny puns make it a fun way to introduce Chemistry!

room213 (1)Jackie’s favorite thing in Room 213 are her inquiry units, especially her To Kill a Mockingbird Inquiry Project.   This inquiry project teaches students about the important themes in the novel, but also to help them apply the lessons they learn to their own lives.  They reflect on what they learn about tolerance and intolerance through writing prompts, and work together to plan and design a website that reflects their learning and demonstrates their  writing skills. The project also requires that they become heroes for real-life mockingbirds in their community. I love the ideas they come up with and they come away with a good feeling, because they have helped someone else.

square logo Mrs E loves her Quadrilaterals Stations Maze Review Activity.  Stations mazes are great because they get students up and moving around the room. They also encourage students to check their work carefully since an incorrect answer will eventually send them back to a problem they have already solved. Successfully completing the maze requires students to slow down and check their work.  This maze requires students to know and apply all of the properties of quadrilaterals.  Also, students need to use coordinate geometry to classify quadrilaterals.  Your students will enjoy review time and you will enjoy seeing them discuss and defend their ideas.

Different Drummer LogoClaire, of Different Drummer Secondary English Resources, would like you to know about her American Gangster Biography Writing Guide. This unit contains an article written to explain the rise and development of the 1920s American gangster, vocabulary activities, a list of 35 famous and little known gangsters from the 1920s, and two writing guides to help students understand how to research and write an interesting, dynamic biography about their chosen gangster. It helps students choose the important information to include and shows them how to organize it into an appropriate written format.

LanguageArtsClassroomIn The Language Arts Classroom, Lauralee loves using her Hunger Games Grammar Unit Worksheets & Graphic Organizers.  This bundle provides over 250 pages of grammar in a variety of ways, while using sentences from the popular book. Students will analyze syntax and diction, while using proofreading, grammar, and editing terms. Activities prompt students to evaluate the novel’s word choice, graphic organizers provide structure, teaching ideas, and alternative activities.

Julia - Teacher JuliaTeacher Julia is proud of her Research Essay Unit, as it has everything a teacher needs to teach how to do research, from collecting information to writing it an essay form, this product has it! All of the teacher materials needed can easily be printed out and used during the lessons. There are conferencing tips, scripted lesson plans, anchor charts, and much more! This unit will last at least a month in the classroom! And the best part is, you can teach about any subject as you teach students how to write a research paper!

Brandon BowyerBrandon, of Mr Bowyer’s Social Studies Classroom loves his Fundamental Principles and Founding Documents 4-Day Unit. This product is based on his master’s thesis unit and includes four days of instruction and a testing day!  Fundamental principles can be very difficult to teach, but with this unit it’s as easy as apple pie!  The unit includes a number of teaching methods, assessments, and methods of content delivery.  When he taught this unit, his students showed measurable growth on his unit objectives.

Square image1Our Daring English Teacher, Christina, is excited about her Ultimate Romeo & Juliet Differentiation Bundle.  That’s because  this item because it is one that she is currently using in her classroom, and it is working. She teaches English to ESL students, and with the help of this differentiated “Romeo and Juliet” bundle, she is seeing a dramatic improvement in their writing and comprehension of the play.

AlgebraSimplifiedIconWould you eat a shawarma or a mangosteen? Falafel or a rambutan? Dawn has found classroom success with her Linear System Global Word Problems. Created to expose students to a little cultural diversity during a systems of linear equations unit, these 6 word problems use authentic names, items, and prices from 5 different countries. She loves to split these up into a problem a day. A few pictures add extra spice, and especially during sale time this item is exceptionally priced.

Humor: An Informal Formative Assessment

Is a smile formative assessment? Can comics really have an educational purpose?

The Common Core standard was HSS-ID.C.9: Distinguish between correlation and causation. The class: Algebra IB, 9th graders. Students had first hypothesized the difference, and then viewed a 10 minute video on correlation versus causation. This was followed by charts published by Business Week emphasizing the absurdity of correlation implying causation and then supported by a close (yes close and not cloze… apparently there is a difference in MD) reading activity with an online article. Even after this thorough investigation of correlation versus causation, did students really get it?

Formative assessment time
Normally in math, students are tested on their ability to perform some mathematical operation. In this case though, students needed to apply a concept as they often do in a social studies course. For a check on student comprehension of key ideas, a colleague tipped me off to using content-specific humor. (Thanks Surya!)

The moment of truth: Students are presented a comic only humorous to those who understand the underlying concept.

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Correlation by xkcd. Image linked to site.

Hold your breath. Wait for it. Wait for it… Okay no belly laughs, but a smirk, another smile, a student who says “Oh!” While informal, in that moment it is clearly evident whether the students have a grasp of the content or not. Warning: Sometimes the truthful answer is “Not.”

Hint: Sometimes it helps if you read the comic aloud.

Humor is definitely not limited to comics. The audio recording of the Verizon Dollars versus Cents debacle acted as the informal formative assessment for dimensional analysis. “The Real Meaning of MPH” youtube clip, humor as a formative assessment for rate of change, really did cause belly laughs, yet one girl confessed, “I still don’t get it.” (Remediation was provided for the student).

Do you teach another subject? Humor as an informal formative assessment may be even more applicable in other subject areas. I am definitely jealous of the plethora of political cartoons available to the social studies department. Comics English is a website dedicated to using comics in the ELA classroom. I can only imagine what kind of comics could be found for the foreign language classroom.

What sources have you found useful for finding content-specific humor? If using humor as formative assessment, would you explain the humor to students who didn’t “get it” or wait to see if they see the humor after reteaching of the content?

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.

Hey, Khan – can’t ELA be flipped, too?

Can ELA be flipped (1)Ever since the Khan Academy boom started, I’ve been waiting for them to expand their video selection from math and science to GRAMMAR. After all, doesn’t grammar have rules, correct answers, and objective information that can be memorized? Don’t these topics get lectured by teachers and professors everywhere?

Couldn’t language arts be “flipped”?

I decided not to wait on Khan Academy. It became apparent to me that the flipped classroom method was not only possible, but was a serious time-saver in my middle school language arts classroom.

I was drawn to the appeal of “outsourcing” lectures to homework so that I could spend my in-class minutes writing, close reading, and conferencing with students. Lecture still has a place in language arts; the place just wasn’t my classroom.

My ENTIRE world changed when I brutally asked myself one question:

When do students need to be WITH you, and when do they only need to hear it FROM you?

 Once I got honest about this question, I realized that ELA could be flipped for many areas: vocabulary, grammar, propaganda techniques, literary devices, rhetorical terms, and frontloading information about authors, literary time periods, and texts.

I also make “how-to” videos: using, formatting docs in MS Word and Google docs, making works cited pages, modifying Google search results, etc.

Plus, I had a great mentor. My Social Studies teacher was already using the method:

  1. He made PowerPoint lectures, recorded screencasts narrating over slides, and then uploaded them to Edmodo or Mentor Mob.

  2. For homework, students watched videos and took a quick online quiz (through Edmodo) so he could see whether or not his students “got it”.

  3. Using data from those quizzes, he’d spend the next day on stations activities, creative assignments, and projects that jumped from passive absorption to the application level.

Using Popplet, PowerPoint, and, I started small and flipped ONE area (vocabulary) using similar routines. But when I started to flip grammar too, I realized something: couldn’t the STUDENTS be doing this?

Thus, I made a grammar video project in which student small groups made instructional videos on specific grammar topics; these became the foundation for my entire year of flipping.

There ARE best practice to save time, create routines, and assess accurately. However, the excuses to NOT flip are starting to lose their validity:

  • Flipping requires teacher time “up front”, but it saves time later when you have a “bank” of videos to use next year. More videos are available online now, too.

  • Most secondary students have SOME device on which to watch a video. My vids are all .mp4 files so they can be viewed on PC and Apple products equally. (Some teachers just post on YouTube.)

The only thing that flipping truly requires  is courage. But when you leap, the payoffs are huge: formative data, more classroom time, and a student body who sees you working WITH them, and not just FOR them.

Sara_store logoSara is a middle school language arts teacher who also has prior experience in high school ELA and Test Prep. She is a National Writing Project consultant with a Master’s degree in Integrated Language Arts 7-12; visit her Teachers Pay Teachers Store to see engaging projects for Secondary ELA.

Making Formative Assessment Useful and Fun

I think we all know why we should be using Formative Assessment:

1. To determine whether students are in the correct stream of the course.

2. To determine whether the students are lacking any prerequisite skills for this course.

3. To get an understanding of how students learn best.

4. For students to get an understanding of whom they work well with in the class.

5. To observe whether students are gaining new knowledge and to adjust instruction accordingly.

Can we make it more interesting and engaging for our students?  And why not make it more fun for us too?  Here are a few of the ways that I implement formative assessment in my Science and Physics classes.



Since it is formative assessment, don’t be afraid to ask out-of-the-box questions. Get the kids thinking and rather than just recalling facts! Here I used a comic to assess their understanding of Kepler’s Laws.

My bet is that we all pretty much already implement quizzes in our classroom.  They don’t take too long to make, or to mark, and give us a pretty good idea of how our students are doing.  However, these aren’t the best way to assess all skills and all students.

My guidelines are to give students a quiz on the material from the previous week.  This way:

1. They all know what topics will be covered.

2. They all have time to prepare for the quiz, even if they were absent during the previous week.

3. They have enough “time to forget”, so they will have to review before the quiz (or truly know the topic) and not rely on their short-term memory.

Academic Conversation

One of the Academic Conversation posters in my classroom that helps the students come up with responses and prompts.

Academic Conversations

Once your students have practiced having academic conversations this will work so nicely in your classroom.  It does take some practice though!  Work academic conversations into your classroom often and then it will become natural.  Before you know it, you’ll be able to listen as your students take their understanding of the concept and build upon it for an even deeper understanding, or, challenge one another to see a different point of view.  A quick and easy formative assessment!

Twitter Board

Twitter board. Student stick their tweets on the way out the door.  I keep the best tweets as exemplars.

Exit Cards
This one is probably the easiest to implement.  It can be as simple as asking the students to summarize the topic of your class in a few sentences.  Make it fun by having the students tweet you (online or on a bulletin board).

Here are some great prompts:

1. Summarize today’s topic in 3 sentences.

2. What did you learn today?

3. Write a question about something you don’t completely understand.

4. Explain how… works.

5. I would like to learn more about…

6.  How does what we learned today apply to your life?

7. What was the most surprising idea that you learned about today?



Puzzles & Games
Astro Game

A domino puzzle I made for students to practice their vocabulary.

I use puzzles and GAMES (Group Activities of Meaningful Educational Significance) constantly as formative assessment.  Instead of doing another worksheet on the topic, I give the kids a puzzle on a topic.  Anything from matching terms to their definitions, to scientific notation, to word problems can be turned into a game.

The added bonus to using these group games is that I can assess not only their understanding, but their cooperative learning skills.  I often use these as icebreakers at the start of the semester so students can learn who they like to sit and work with.  It often does take a lot of prep time to create a game, but the investment pays off year after year!

Domino Puzzle

If given the choice between a worksheet and a puzzle, my students would choose the puzzle every time!

Engineering Challenges


Santa’s Challenge.  Get the egg down the chimney using only Christmas decorations.

This is a fun one for Physics.  After we learn a concept together, I will quiz them to make sure that they know the basics of it and can problem solve with those concepts and the equations.  What really shows me whether they understand how something works is by introducing an engineering challenge.  Take what you know and physically apply it to a new situation.  For example, we learned about momentum, impulse and collisions prior to the Christmas break.  So naturally, Santa came up with a problem for the students to engineer a solution to.

Even though this was great fun, I was able to assess easily who had a good understanding of the Physics concepts through their designs and conversations (and sometimes, their failures).

"What did you learn about reducing impact?"

The result after dropping the vessel out the window.  Now ask, “what did you learn about reducing impact?”

How do you make formative assessment fun for both you and your students?

Mrs. Brosseau's Binder Michelle is a secondary Science and Physics teacher from Ontario, Canada.  She blogs at Mrs. Brosseau’s Binder and shares her materials through her Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

The Sunday Panel

We asked our collaborating teachers, “How do you motivate students to treat formative assessments seriously if they are not for marks that contribute to a final grade?”   Scroll down to see what they have to say:

Getting students to take formative assessment seriously starts on day one.  Explain that it’s beneficial for you and them to see where they are in the learning process; and that if they get help after the formative assessment, their quiz and test scores will be much better!  The important part is to emphasize that formative assessments help everyone, they’re not just an assignment to put grades in the book.

Brandon Bowyer  Brandon Bowyer is a new social studies teacher in Virginia.

I motivate students a few different ways, depending on the type of formative assessment.  I usually preface an assessment with some sort of comment like “I want you to really focus.  Special right triangles are very important because we will be using them for the rest of the year, so I need to know if you don’t understand.”  I try to remind students of the big picture.  This usually works with little assessments (exit tickets, clickers, etc.).  However, if I can tell the kids are going to have trouble focusing (ex. Friday before a long weekend) I let them earn small privileges.  My student’s favorites include listening to music, lining up by the door before the bell rings, sitting with a partner, and sitting on the floor to do homework.

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Mrs E Teaches Math  is a math teacher in Texas.  She has taught classes from algebra to statistics.  You can find her blog at


I focus a lot on learning as a process, and that formative assessment is a really important part of that process.  I make it clear that even though a particular assignment may not be “worth marks”, ultimately it really is, because the feedback I give them will help them improve and, therefore, they will do better on their summative assessments.  Once the students buy in and see the value of getting feedback before it “counts”, they actually start asking for it.  Formative assignments allow them to take risks and try new things without the fear of a potential bad mark that may affect their averages.  It takes a bit of time to build that culture in your classroom, especially if formative assessment is new to the students, but it is definitely worth the time and effort.

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Jackie Cutcliffe (Room 213) teaches high school English in Prince Edward Island, Canada.


I find that if students don’t know they are being assessed, they won’t ask if they’re getting points or a grade for it.  I incorporate response cards into my teaching which only I know are being used for assessment purposes.  Here’s how they work:  I make sets of cards with statements on them such as “true”, “false”, “true if”, “true when”, or multiple choice answer letters like “A”, “B”, “C”, and “D”  I make sure the word on the card is printed in a large font so that I can see it from the front of the room.  Each student gets a set of cards.  (I keep them in zip lock bags so they’re easy to distribute and collect.)

During instruction, I will pause and will give students advance warning that I’m about to ask a question to which every student must respond by holding up one of their cards.  I ask or project the question on the board.  Students have 30 seconds (or sometimes less) to determine their answer.  On my signal, every student holds up their card in unison.  It’s easy to spot the students who lag or look around before raising their card.  It’s easy to see who held up the wrong answer.  I keep track with a check mark on a class roster, of which students are struggling.  I clarify with students who were slow to answer or who held up the wrong card.  They soon learn that if they’re not responding, they’ll be the one to be called on.  They don’t know I’m doing a formative assessment and they never asked for points.  It’s an expectation. 

UtahRoots  Jill Christenson (Utah Roots) is an instructional coach and a professional development trainer in Utah.


​I think there are several ways to have students treat formative assessment seriously. They need to see value in it. I like to mix it up, but here are some strategies that I use. Sometimes I have an honest conversation with students about the reasons for the formative assessment. I will also sometimes check for completion, but not grade for correct or incorrect answers. Finally, I try to have students see their progress, either by tying it back to our earlier goals or objectives, by writing a response on their answer, or charting their progress so they can see growth.

profile pic2Tara Spitzer-List (Science in the City) Tara is a science teacher from upstate NY.



Prior to administering such a formative assessment, I give a class pep talk to address lack of effort or possible cheating.  Because I buy into the expectancy-value theory of motivation (Motivation=Value x Expectancy), I try to sell students on the value of doing their best.  Since I usually use formative assessment results to later form small pull-out groups for remediation, this is an easy sale.  Remediation means extra work.  Avoid remediation by succeeding on the formative assessment.  However, I find this pressure has to be tempered with the reminder that if they don’t know, using their neighbor’s correct answer is not the solution. Giving the teacher a false positive helps no one.  “It’s better that I know now that you don’t know the material than to find out on the 200 point unit test. I need to know where the holes are in your learning so that I can work on fixing it.


Dawn Roberts is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies (Focus: Technology in Schools).

Do you have a question for our panel?  Please submit it on our contact us page.

The Newest Members of our Blogger Family

BabyLevi David
Ruby Daniella

A healthy 9 lbs. 10.5 ozs, baby boy Levi was born 12/13/13 to teacher-mommy Dawn Roberts and her husband Shaun. Levi’s two older siblings are thrilled to show him the ropes. This blog’s first week also marked Dawn’s first week back in school from maternity leave. Thanks to snow days and holiday vacation a full two months off to love on baby only equated to 22 days out of the classroom! Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. It can stop snowing now.

Back on August 28th Vanessa Jason and her husband Jeffrey welcomed their third baby, Ruby Daniella. Though she was a couple weeks ahead of schedule, she was a healthy 8.5 pounds and 20 inches. Vanessa is taking the year off to spend with Ruby and her siblings ages 2 and 4.

Stay posted. We soon will be celebrating the arrival of two new bundles of joy.

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies (Focus: Technology in Schools).

Biology Roots Badge (2)Vanessa is a science teacher from Massachusetts; she has taught everything from chemistry to microbiology. Find her teaching materials at her TpT store.