One evening I walked into class and announced, ‘Tonight we’re going to talk about structure,” well aware that I was stirring up a hornet’s nest…I wanted to show structure not as restrictive, pharisaic law, but as a means of freedom.
~ Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, p. 123
The necessity of structure to provide freedom has guided my life since I first read this 15 years ago. It informs my teaching, my writing, and my parenting. For now, let’s focus on teaching. Again and again the teachers I work with hear me talk about the necessity of structure for students to freely explore, discover, and make meaning—without the underlying structure, this supposed freedom quickly dissolves into chaos, bored students, and a whole lot of everyone’s time wasted, rather than every moment being used toward learning.
This piece provides a variety of teaching structures and rhythms that encourage freedom in learning. I use these formats and methods with all ages and all contents – from ages 5, 15, 25, 55, through 85 year olds. I use these methods with classes of five and groups of 400, in classrooms, presentations, and workshops, across the US and abroad.
Please share this piece with any teachers or presenters you feel might be interested. We are always looking for new ideas. It is our equivalent of, “What am I going to cook for dinner tonight?”
These methods are appropriate with any content – literature, mathematics, elementary content, creative writing, pedagogy, history, science, et. al. I’ve used these methods across the US and in countries abroad. Many of these rhythms for structure are probably already familiar to you. I hope there are a few new ones to add to your teaching toolbox. These are all ideas I’ve learned along the way through many years of teaching. The only ideas I can claim credit for are the ones shared here under Teaching with Stones, which I believe started one time when I was about to teach and I grabbed a bunch of rocks out of the parking lot. True. Where I learned the others have vanished with the winds of time. What I’ve tried to do is put these ideas in one place.
This post contains:
• Concepts for composing an engaging, interactive, rigorous class/presentation/workshop.
• Specific strategies and activities for learners to engage with content/ideas and each other.
When I sit down to compose the format of a class, whether a one-hour class, a three-hour presentation, or a week-long workshop, to create the skeleton that will support the body of our class, two images guide me in creating the class: 1) the narrative arc of the class, and 2) a well-stitched quilt.
1) The narrative arc of the class: Just as a good story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, so does a class, whether that class is one hour or one day.
Thinking of the whole of the week or the class as the book, as with any well-written book, each chapter within the whole must have a beginning and middle and an end.
2) A quilt: The different squares of the fabric represent the content of the class or workshop. Stitches represent the and the varied ways that students engage with the content and with one another, to create a strong whole.
No matter the beauty of each, one without the other doesn’t work.
When I work with instructors in the construction industry, I replace the quilt stitched together idea with cement blocks held together with mortar. Whichever image works better for you.
The idea is without those stitches holding the fabric, and without that mortar holding the blocks in place, no matter how good the pieces used, they will fall apart and
crumble. As is when we teach in a single-dimensional manner and don’t allow students to talk and learn and talk some more and make meaning for themselves.
Whether you’re teaching in a classroom or workshops, we want the learners to engage with this content in many different ways and many different people. Break the content into “blocks.” Some of the blocks may take 10 minutes, some 20, some an hour. Vary the length and span of these blocks of curriculum.
Start stitching these blocks together into a whole. Here are some strategies to do this. These are strategies I’ve learned over the past two decades of teaching.
First, when you feel yourself drawn to ask a question to the whole class, stop yourself and use one of the following ideas, instead. When we ask a question of the whole class, we all know that uncomfortable silence that immediately follows. And lingers. Then, one of the same three students out of 25 raises their hands to share. And everyone else sits quietly. If not even those student raises their hand, the teacher will call on a student, often to the discomfort and embarrassment. People of all ages need talk to create meaning for themselves about what their learning. Without the stitching holding the pieces together, or the mortar holding the blocks, no matter the beauty of the fabric or sturdiness of the cement, the whole remains weak.
Here are a variety of methods that can be used at any place in the narrative arc, depending on how you choose to use and what questions are asked.
Pass the Paper
I learned this from Mom and don’t remember if this has any other more pedagogical name.
1. Students placed in groups of 3-5. (Teachers always create the groups and/or pairs. This prevents the energy going into students making sure they’re with their friends, wondering if anybody will pick them, feeling bad if they aren’t in a group, and focuses the energy immediately on whatever the next task.)
2. Each group has one piece of paper for the whole. Each member of the group has a pen or pencil.
3. The teacher will announce a prompt and the idea is for the group of students to write as many words associated with this prompt down as possible. Every student needs to write and pass the paper to the person on their left. Members of the group can help each other, so this tends to be quite noisy. I usually give this one or two minutes, and I announce how many seconds they have left, which keeps the energy high.
Keep the pace moving and fun. At the end, each group counts up how many they have, we go quickly around the room, I do absolutely nothing with that, and we quickly move on to the next topic. This is very effective at the beginning of class to bring everyone together and ground us in our group and what we’ve talked about in the last class.
4. Start with something easy where everyone is successful. Write as many different flavors of ice cream. As many different kinds of animals. As many colors. Books. And then work up toward content, as the energy is going. The final questions are related to content, “Write everything you remember about what we talked about in our last class. What you remember from the readings. From the book we read as a class. et. al. This usually takes about 10 minutes.
5. From here, we segue into the content.
Pair/Share or Turn and Talk
Literally, “Turn and talk with your partner.” Play with weaving this into your class regularly. This increases the participation and learning exponentially in your class. Now all students are talking and making meaning, rather than the few who raise their hands to answer the teachers questions, and turning learning into a spectator sport for the rest of the class. I weave this into classes and presentation, with students talking with each other quite regularly throughout. People of all ages need to talk, take a break from listening, and share ideas. This also raises the energy level in the room, so woven throughout the class, this keeps the energy engaged and meaningful. (Usually around 3 minutes as time to talk.)
There are many different ways to do this. Here are a couple. Once you’ve played with these a bit, there are a myriad of ways you can adapt.
One way to do this:
1. The teacher writes sentences from the text, questions that require critical thinking about the content, questions that encourage students to get to know one another, or whatever ideas you would like your students to be talking about during this mingle, one strips of paper. One question, one piece of text, one idea per strip of paper works best.
2. Model for group: First, you’re going to find one other person to talk with for this first part. One of you will read what is on your strip of paper and share your ideas and questions about this with your partner. Next, your partner is going to read what is on their strip of paper and share their thoughts and ideas with you. When the teacher raises her hand (flips the lights, turns over the rain stick, taps on the drum, whatever cue to draw that conversation to a close) you and your partner will switch pieces of paper and find someone new. You will then read your new question to your new partner, talk about these ideas and they will read theirs to you.
3. After modeling this for students, invite students to stand, come to whatever large area designated, and begin. I’ll usually quickly walk through and pair partners, so less time is spent finding a partner and more on the actual idea.
4. Teacher facilitates how often students switch papers and move to talk with another person. I use this as a way to go deeper into the content and for students to hear multiple perspectives on the ideas and the readings.
5. After students have switched a number of times, for their final partner, I’ll often ask a prompt that focuses on what they learned. “What is a new idea that you learned through talking with the different people?” “What surprised you most about what people said.” “What was something one of your classmates said that helped you
Another way to do this:
Students write their own questions or ideas on the strip of paper. Stress here that other people will be reading this, so to write extra neat!
I like both ways of doing this. If there are specific ideas or readings that I want students to work with, I’ll select the prompts for the strips. When students write their own prompts and ideas, this adds a whole level of student-generated focus that I love. It is also quite insightful to hear what they students have written and their thoughts.
I love this. I use this all the time with all ages and in all contexts. I learned this through the SIT TESOL course. It gets students up and moving, talking many people within the group.
1. Teacher counts off students by 2’s. I find 1, 2, 1, 2, boring. Mix it up. Draw on whatever ideas You’re talking about or just anything other than numbers. Often, I’ll draw from nature or the content here, too. “Stone, Sky, Stone, Sky.” “Rain, Shine, Rain, Shine.” “Addition, Subtraction, Addition, Subtraction.” Anything to mix it up.
2. Ask all of one group (Stones) to raise their hands. This helps them remember their group.
3. Directions to class – “All of the Stones are going to stand and line up shoulder-to-shoulder and all facing one direction.” (The first time a class does this, this can seem a bit confusing to them. Often, I’ll help guide students in standing shoulder-to-shouder and all facing toward class. After a class has done this a few times, they know.)
4. “Now all the Skies come and line up facing across from one of the Stones. Shake the hand of the person in front of you. (I’ve discovered the nature of shaking hands helps people line up facing one other person.
5. So now the class is in two straight (mostly) lines facing each other. If you have an uneven number of students, create a group of three at the end of the row.
6. The teacher stands at the head of the lines. I will often stand on a chair, so I can see everyone’s faces. If you’re working with small students, no need to do this.
7. Remind students that when you raise your hand, it’s time to bring that conversation to a close, raise their hand, stop talking, and look at the teacher. This is crucial for this to work. Then, the teacher announces prompts for the pairs of students (the student standing across from the other) to talk about. “What did you think about what we learned?”
8. After each of the people in the pairs get a chance to talk, the teacher brings them back together as a group. Here’s I’ll debrief popcorn style as a whole group and ask students to toss our main ideas of their conversation.
9. Then, the first person in one of the lines walks (or dances!) down through the middle of the two lines of people to the end of the line. Every person in that line only shifts to their left one place, so they are now standing in front of a new partner and shakes their hand. I’ve found shaking the hand of the new partner helps students line up, engages students who don’t know one another very well to meet, and adds an element of real community.
10.. Teacher asks another question, i.e. “What was something you liked about the book? The readings? The ideas?”
10. After each question and students having the chance to talk, the person closest to the teacher in line walks (or dances!) down the middle of the two lines and everyone shifts to the left. After several questions, students have had a chance to talk with several different other people.
11. Ask closure/reflective question at the end to deepen learning. “What are some new ideas you learned from your classmates today?”
Follow steps 1 and 2 from the Conversation Line.
3. All Skies come up and stand in a circle touching shoulders and facing inward. (Inward is key. You only have to forget to include this once to realize why.)
4. Once all Skies are standing in a circle facing inward, teacher then instructs students to turn in place, so they are facing outward.
5. Invite other group of students (Stones) to come and stand in front of one person and shake hands. If you have an uneven number of students, form one group of three.
6. Remind students that when you raise your hand, it’s time to bring that conversation to a close, raise their hand, stop talking, and look at the teacher. This is crucial for this to work. Then, the teacher announces prompts for the pairs of students (the student standing across from the other) to talk about.
7. After teacher brings students back together, through raising of hand or bell or drum or lights, all students in the outer circle move over one person to the left, so everyone now is standing in front of a new partner. Teacher tosses out another prompt for students to talk about.
8. Continue until students have talked with a number of different students.
9. Ask closure/reflective question at the end to deepen learning. “What are some new ideas you learned from your classmates today?”
In both Conversation Line and Conversation Circle, I’ve discovered (through trial, error,and total chaos and calamity) that breaking the directions and movement of students down into this sections is essential.
Teaching with Stones and Glass Spheres
I teach with stones and glass spheres. As I mentioned above, This started in the middle of a teaching day, I had an idea, and scooped up a pile of rocks from the parking lot. If you don’t want to gather dirty rocks from the parking lot, you can buy inexpensive bags of all kinds of stones and glass spheres at craft stores, including Michael’s and Hobby Lobby.
I find teaching with stones and glass provides texture and a sense of the concrete when working with ideas that can feel abstract to students of all ages. And, they are soothing
in the hand. I’ll often put them out on the tables, just so people can hold and smooth in their palm. The rule is, “Nothing that makes noise, while I’m teaching.” No tapping or clicking. I’ve found holding these smooth stones can be calming and grounding for students of all ages. The first time you use glass spheres, warn your students that it’s not candy. I’ve had more than one student who thought this.
Here are a few ideas:
1) At the beginning of a lesson to ground students in the content and to tap prior knowledge. Ask students to pick up a handful of stones/beads in their hand. Whatever feels right to them. Then, taking turns they place one bead down on the table for each piece of information they know about that idea.
2) For closure, students can pick up a handful or I’ll place a handful on their table and I’ll ask, “What new ideas are you taking away from the class today?” Students take turns setting a stone or glass sphere down for the ideas they will take away from the lesson.
3) At the end of class, pass out a single stone or sphere to each student. “If you could think of one word or phrase that best describes what you learned today what would it be?” Often, we’ll stand in a circle on the carpet, younger students could sit in a circle, and we go around in a circle with the student gently tossing the sphere into the middle of our circle.
I hope you’ve found a few treasures to create the structure necessary for your students to enjoy freedom with ideas and learning. If you’d like to some of your own treasures in the comments below, I will compile the new ideas, in your own words and attributed to you, in a future Dewdrops.
It seems only appropriate to close with What I Wish for You — wishes for teachers.
For more ideas about teaching and literacy, please visit first grade teacher extraordinaire, Tammy McMorrow, in:
Forever in First
Thank you to Stephanie Paterson, for sharing the beauty of her quilts with us.
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May 3, 2017 at 2:19 pm
I really appreciate all your work,they are interesting,motivating and encouraging so much.I am so happy to be on your own link and now i now how to be here and use your activities with pleasure if you af course allow us to do.
May 1, 2017 at 7:35 pm
All the activities are amazing and interesting I’ll try to use them in my classes especially the one with stones and glass spheres … I believe that they fit my situation of large classes. What I was worried about is the chaos and noise that such activities may cause , but you ensured that this is something natural and we have to accept it as long as our students are enjoying, communicating, sharing ideas, practicing the language and learning at the same time …. All the Best …. Rana
April 30, 2017 at 10:53 pm
What I want to say is that really you are a great person with a great profession. to make a clear connection between language and culture and to let people see things as really they are is something which only unique people with extraordinary abilities can do this
I love what you are doing
May 1, 2017 at 10:54 am
What a gift to receive your letter here. Thank you so very much for all here. It is an honor for me to work together in our class and am deeply grateful for all you write here. You inspire me!
I love that we met and now share our journeys.
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January 31, 2016 at 8:26 pm
Thank you for sharing these techniques that obviously took a while for you to perfect. I was thinking of ways to use these tools in a highmiddle school class contest. I think that especially at these grade levels, where it is so easy for students to isolate themselves in cliques, the intermingle strategy would work beyond just reflecting on, reinforcing and learning concepts. It would be a social tool to discover a person that used to be invisible. I like the double format of this method. I think that by asking students to write a particular topic of interest would reveal what part of the lecture was more interesting. Interest might derive either from the real allure of a particular topic, or from the way the topic was presented. This information might help the teacher reformat the lesson either giving more space to a particularly interesting topic, or by presenting the other topics in the same format as the moat popular topic was presented.
February 7, 2016 at 1:29 pm
Hi, Mietta—I loved that you picked up on that fact that these techniques took me a while to feel comfortable. Yes! I always tell teachers that if things don’t work the first time, try again and see if they’ll work once you make them your own and find an authentic way to weave them into the rhythm of your teaching. Yes, these work beautifully to bring that invisible or reserved person into the classroom community – in a very safe way, since all are talking and making noise and engaged. No ‘put-one-student-on-the-spot.’ I lover your idea of students writing on a particular topic of interest and how this informs you as the teacher and how what you learn may enrich the class. I’d love to hear of your experiences!
September 7, 2014 at 11:28 pm
Loved the ideas – all of them and of course remembered the ones we had practiced in your class. But the smooth stones and glass beads are wonderful teaching tools. We remember hearing and seeing in teaching but how often do we remember the importance of the sense of touch as a memory builder.
Thank you. Connie Durand
September 8, 2014 at 2:40 pm
So glad that you enjoyed and recognized some of what we’ve done in class. Yes, I love the smooth stones and glass beads, as well. I’ll bring to class this week. There is something very soothing about these, which seems to open paths for learning and community. Thanks so much for taking the time to connect.
February 26, 2014 at 11:07 pm
Hi Dawn! What wonderful ideas! I have one question..in the Conversation Line when they are done and you ask the closing question… “What are some new ideas you learned from your classmates?” is this something only 2-3 student will share out loud or something they can write in a journal…? or all of the above..? 🙂 thanks! See you back at class!
September 8, 2014 at 2:42 pm
Hi, Paulette! Wonderful question about the Conversation Line. Yes, this is something that open to the class as a whole. All have been talking with their partner and now is an opportunity to share with the class as a whole. I find that this helps create community. Completely optional who shares. A lovely idea to have them write about all in their journal when they return to tables and chairs. I’ll use this! 🙂 Gratitude.
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September 6, 2013 at 1:45 am
Hey friend. Just thought I’d let you know how much I loved this post. You discussed many things I already do in class, but also others that I thought I could add or adapt, and have even happier, more engaged students! I even felt compelled to PIN it to my common core Pinterest board! 😀
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July 3, 2013 at 1:32 pm
Dawn thankyou for sending this to marc.I hope you get this cause beleve me i am technoligy challened.This si great stuff and I remember doing some of it two years ago.I do alot of different things in my classes but i know that i am lacking in structure and maybe thouroghness.Ha maybe spelling to.I just passed my math so it is onto another teachback i assume.when I was scored I needed a score of 5 and I recieved a 4.95 I think it was due to my post or mabey structure.hey I am still learning from my fellow instructors and from information like you have posted here.The class we took with you was great! Thanks for your help. Stan
March 20, 2013 at 1:04 am
Hi Dawn, just got around to reading this and with Collin’s help, I’d like to incorporate one of the ideas in our Middle School Language Arts Enrichment class tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes.
March 20, 2013 at 11:02 am
Hi Anne-Marie, Wonderful and thank you to Collin! How did it go? Smiles, Dawn
March 7, 2013 at 5:17 pm
Dawn, this isn’t only for teacher (which I am not) but writers as well. It’s an excellent reminder should we get lost. I am not the sort of writer to spend hours in books or classrooms – I did at first — because the knowledge overwhelmed me, and I was impressionable, It took me a few classes to realize not all teachers are like you.. most are not, and they like ‘what they like’. They don’t offer opinions so much as they say , it should be like this…. Once if figured this out going to classes and attending workshops was much more fun and I learned what I need to learn and was able to toss out what I wasn’t interested in or was needed. Printed and saved, thanks.
March 16, 2013 at 1:46 pm
Dear Brenda, Thank you for sharing this wisdom – “They don’t offer opinions so much as they say , it should be like this…. Once if figured this out going to classes and attending workshops was much more fun and I learned what I need to learn and was able to toss out what I wasn’t interested in or was needed.” This is such an important understanding for any kind of learning in the classroom/workshop – and I feel, though my own experience, this is especially important with writing. I, too, have had those writing instructors you mention here. Take what strengthens our unique voice and craft, and let go of the other. Bravo.
March 7, 2013 at 1:36 am
I taught 7th Grade Language Arts a few years ago. It’s been some time since I’ve been in the classroom, and I’m preparing an author classroom visit. Your tips here are so going to be used!
March 6, 2013 at 5:11 pm
These are great ideas. I will definitely use them.
Could personalities clashes happen in such situations?
If there are two kids don’t get along, do I avoid putting them together?
March 6, 2013 at 11:21 pm
Wonderful to see you here! You bring up something that is always part of this dance of structuring a class and taking the students through the structure and learning in a meaningful way. What about when students don’t get along. This is where the underlying foundation and climate created by the teacher is crucial. We spend a lot of time getting to know one another (I’ll include more ways to do this in later pieces) and I talk about how this is a place of safety, where we all work together, and students become very familiar with our working in groups and with other people. When this is new, students may chafe a bit. This is where the teacher’s energy and keeping the students moving makes a difference.
I mix up and change pairs and groups frequently, so that everybody works with many different students. As students learn that they’ll be working with many different people, this diffuses the energy of students refusing to work with anybody in particular. Students will read if the teacher means what she says or not. If a teacher tosses an instruction out there and hopes the students will do it, they’ll sense this. If the teacher gives instructions and knows that this is what students will do and keeps the energy moving forward, students read this, too.
Play with this and let me know what you discover. I look forward to hearing about your experiences!
March 14, 2013 at 3:10 am
It makes so much sense!
I tried the cocktail idea – it worked great! I had kids switch partners six times. I felt that it was enough for that group of kids. For the closure I used glass stones. Each child picked one and took it home to show it to his/her parents and to tell them about class.
I love it! I am going to keep working on this!
March 4, 2013 at 2:08 pm
Me encantan las ideas! Aunque ya implemento varias de estas ideas, me parece muy valioso leer las variaciones. Sobre todo me impacto lo que escribiste acerca del comienzo, el medio y el final de cada leccion, proyecto etc. Muchas veces se nos olvida lo importante que es esta estructura. Gracias!
March 4, 2013 at 4:30 pm
Hola Ana Maria,
Si, para mi también son las variaciones que han desarollado por los años, descubriendo distintas maneras que funcionan bien con los alumnos, que me encantan y uso tanto. Y siempre siguen desarollando, también. Voy a seguir incluyendo cosas así en Dewdrops, y con otras más detalladas acerca de el comienzo, el medio, y el final – con ideas específicas por cada uno. Las maestras siempre estamos buscando mas ideas para hacer las lecciones interesantes y variadas. Me encanta que te encantó y gracias por tomar el tiempo de escribir! Abrazotes, Dawn
March 3, 2013 at 1:34 am
I taught for 32 years and have been retired for 16, but I still find reading about teaching strategies to be stimulating. Thank you for sharing these really neat ideas.
March 4, 2013 at 4:25 pm
Hi Jane, I hadn’t realized that you taught – and for 32 years! Thank you so much for taking the time to write about your experiences. I love reading about these strategies, too. I think teachers are always tuned in to this, whether we’re actually in a classroom at the time, or not. So glad to share the experience. Smiles, Dawn
March 2, 2013 at 10:51 pm
Dawn, all I can say is that I wish I had known you when I was teaching.
March 4, 2013 at 4:24 pm
Hi Lindy, 🙂 It stays with us always, doesn’t it. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. Smiles, Dawn
March 2, 2013 at 8:43 pm
Thank you for this post Dawn! If only ALL teachers could read this and apply these ideas in their classes. We’d have happier more engaged students. All the best to you, Lauren
Date: Sat, 2 Mar 2013 13:57:26 +0000 To: firstname.lastname@example.org
March 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm
Hey dear Lauren, You’re welcome! Wouldn’t it be something if students could actually talk and make meaning in classes? Thanks so much. Hope all is well with you. I’m thinking of you in this new chapter of life. hugs! Dawn
March 2, 2013 at 8:29 pm
Thank yo for all of these ideas! I have used some of them- turn and talk is a good one.
Conversations in Literacy
March 4, 2013 at 4:22 pm
Hi Lori, Yes, turn and talk is a good one to get the energy going and for people to absorb and make meaning for themselves. Thanks so much for stopping in and taking the time to write – and for sharing Conversations in Literacy. I look forward to future conversations. Smiles, Dawn
March 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm
Where was this when I was teaching? Awesome!
Sent from my iPhone
March 2, 2013 at 4:26 pm
Rachel, 🙂 Thanks!! xo
March 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm
Dawn, thank you so much for joining me today. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all your ideas this morning. Getting learners to engage with each other is one of the many things that I’m working on in my own class. I especially love the mingle/cocktail idea. I’ve done something similar but in a very basic, check-on-your-understanding kind of way. I like how your idea makes it reflective and interactive. Wonderful stuff! Thanks again for your company!
March 2, 2013 at 2:50 pm
Dear Tammy, thank you ever so much for including me with you and your readership. It is a true honor to join the conversation with your wonderful community. I know your own class is interactive and community, rich with mutual learning from one another. I’m glad you found the mingle/cocktail idea maybe one that will work well with your students. I love this one, too, as it gets students talking with each other and hearing all kinds of different perspectives. I’d love to hear about your experiences with this in your class. Enjoy, enjoy! Hugs, Dawn