Hexagonal Thinking

I ran across a session about hexagonal thinking at the Lowcountry Google Summit this summer. The description said something along the lines of , “Hexagonal thinking is a great visual tool for enabling organization and deep understanding of a topic.” I love the book “Making Thinking Visible” so this was right up my alley.

I’ve since used this strategy twice — once with adults at a PD session and once with fourth graders at the beginning of a unit. Here’s a brief rundown of how it works:

1. You provide a group of students with ten (give or take) hexagonal pieces of paper.
2.  You give them a large list of words that are loosely associated.
3. The students pick ten words to write on the hexagons and must join the word cards by linking words that they thought had strong connections.
4. Everyone in the group must be able to explain the connections between two (or more) of the words linked together.
5. Groups can share out their connections, you groups can walk around the room looking at other groups’ connections.
6. Give each group three more hexagons that are a different color. Students can write down three words they wished were on the list and they must be able to use these new hexagons to make additional connections.

I used this strategy to activate prior knowledge with my Native American unit. There were many words on the list that the students knew (teepee, culture, longhouse) and many they were unfamiliar with (kachina, kiva, potlach). It was awesome seeing the groups make totally different connections. One group focused on hunting and survival. Another group went with art and culture.  Students looked up or explained new vocabulary (we are 1:1 ipads so everything is a Google search away). They disagreed about some of the connections (weaker ones got pushed aside for stronger connections being made) but the students worked well together in groups of four. I also was able to see where there were some misconceptions and things I needed to focus on while teaching the unit.

With adults in a professional development setting, it went equally well. Here’s the link to order your hexagonal paper cutter (only $12!) If you wanted to print your hexagons, there are several free options online including this awesome one from Pam Hook’s (HookED).


Digital Teaching Resources, Flexible Content, Student Choice, Uncategorized

Managing Book Clubs in a Digital Classroom

I have been focusing on student choice this year. This was easiest for me to start with in reading. I have six IB units that I teach each year and always match a novel up to each of the units. This year, I started giving the students a choice between two novels. I was shocked when I did an initial survey, that the groups were almost dead even. I did this again for my second novel, and then I got all crazy and let them choose from three novels. Again, the groups were about 1/3 of the class. I had to move one or two students but I made sure to give them their second choice if they did not get their first choice. (I attached a brief description of the novels in Google Classroom and then sent them a Google Form letting them tell me their preference.)

book club

We have been using the College of William and Mary’s GT book Patterns of Change to teach literature and language arts this year. I am using their literature web, and change matrix along with the normal plot maps, character traits, predictions, and connections (text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world) that most teachers would use when doing a novel study. My students have worked on these in smaller chunks all year, and I would not give this entire packet without working on each of these elements previously. (I am typing this blog in March, and only now do I feel like my students are ready.) You can find my digital resource for Book Clubs here. I share the slideshow with one member of each club, who in turn, shares the file with his/her group with editing rights.

Rules of Book Club:

  • Four students to a “club”.
  • Students choose their roles.
    (A coin flip may be used to settle disputes, but the results are final.)
  • Students create the schedule.
    (For our first book club, I assigned them five chapters of their novel a week, but I’ve seen other teachers give their students the end date of the entire novel and is up to the students to get it completed.)
  • Students are still responsible for their own comprehension questions.
  • Groups meet as often or as little as they want.
    (Some groups in my class like to read the novel together and then come up with predictions, theme, etc together (ie one chapter a day). Other groups preferred to do the reading at home, and come together during class for deeper discussions about the novel. I am okay with either set-up.)
  • Each member of the group is responsible for typing on their slides only.
    (The answers to the questions, though, should be discussed collaboratively.)
  • Students will assess their peers at the end of each week.

So far, this has gone well. The majority of groups got straight to work, and if they assigned themselves chapters to read at home, everyone came back prepared. Time management has been an issue for my class all year. I am hoping by chunking this (five chapters a week…ie one chapter a day), the students will stay on track. If it continues going well, I will use the clubs again with my last novel study (Civil War) in about a month. I also made these simple book marks so the kids could keep track of their “job” and take notes while reading.

Digital Citizenship, Digital Teaching Resources, Flexible Content, Flipped Classroom, Math Rotations, Personalized Learning, Uncategorized

Flipped Classroom

I have been intrigued with the Flipped Classroom for a while. (The general idea is the reverse of the traditional learning environment: delivering instructional content like videos, primary source documents, reading assignments– outside of the classroom. It moves activities, including those that may have traditionally been considered homework, like discussion questions, projects, and activities based on the readings for school.) This video is a great overview.


At the beginning of the year, I promised my kids and parents that I wouldn’t assign homework. I was nervous to try flipping my classroom because I was afraid there would be backlash when I started sending work home. I think I will fully embrace the flipped classroom next year, but for now I’m experimenting with the “in-class flip.”

It was easiest for me to start thinking about flipping my reading and math lessons. I created this choice board with different activities for the students to work on (their choice) while I pulled small groups for differentiated instruction. My students all went straight for the games, and not much else.

Version Two: This math choice board works so much better! There are three choices in dark blue. The students must complete two days in the dark boxes, before moving to the lighter boxes. They spend two days in the medium blue boxes (or they can go back to dark blue). Finally, they can choose the game on Friday or any of the previous activities. I made a similar version for reading but is a little more flexible.

This took a bit of time…I had to link up the videos, Padlet boards, skill sheets, etc., but once they are created, I’ll have them for years. Another issue is that YouTube is blocked at my school. I had to link up BrainPop! videos (students have passwords for this site), and explained that the other videos can be watched at home.  While it’s not a full “Flip” it is definitely a start. Here are the links to my Padlets. It’s so easy to make your own.

  • Padlet Examples:

          Social Studies

Here are some additional resources that have helped me or that I have created to help others in my building.

Digital Teaching Resources, Inquiry-Based, Simulations, Uncategorized

Turning Paper Simulations into Digital Content

Ask any former student what their favorite thing about my class is, and most will say, “Simulation.” Simulation is something another teacher showed me from Scholastic that comes in a PDF form or you can purchase the physical packet for about a dollar more.  I have purchased all the ones below and they are well worth the $8!

Explorer Simulation
Revolutionary War Simulation
Bill Becomes Law Simulation
Oregon Trail Simulation
Civil War Simulation

First, I divide the class into smaller groups. I like six groups, which makes about 4-5 students in a group. I use this electronic group generator that is a Smart Notebook file so there are no complaints about who is in which group (although you can shuffle it as many times as needed). I do this before showing the students their groups.

These simulations are very much like the Oregon Trail computer game we played as kids, or the choose-your-own-ending novels. I read a passage, the small groups make a joint decision, and they listen to the consequences. During the Explorer’s Simulation, for example, the small groups make a decision whether to take the deal offered by King Ferdinand or Isabella for a fleet, or try their luck with the King of Portugal, Manuel I. Other times, the students have to spin on spinner board (paper clip and pencil) to see what their consequences are.

For a few years, I was printing each student a “Simulation Packet” where the kids would keep track of their data and write their journal entries. Then I decided to create them on Google Docs and share on Google Classroom. The reading passages are posted in PDF form, and the students keep track of their journal electronically. While it takes a long time for us to sit and wait for entire groups to spin on the electronic spinner (also available on a Smart Notebook file), it actually builds excitement as the other groups root for, and cheer on, their classmates. As part of most simulations (not the Bill Becomes a Law one), students whose health dips below a five, actually ‘die’. I’ve had entire wagon companies in the Oregon Trail simulation perish before reaching Oregon.

These simulations are great for many reasons. One, they put the students into the shoes of an actual person of the time period. I can teach them about famous Revolutionary War heroes, but when they are making decisions as if they were a soldier, they are soaking in the history and making it relatable. Two, the simulations foster those 21st century skills like communication and collaboration. Three, the Oregon Trail simulation includes a lot of math– the students keep track of how much money they have with them and the pounds of food and supplies they can carry. Interdisciplinary lessons kill two birds with one stone.

I’ve learned that a lot of those old worksheets or printable packets teachers love to share can be converted quickly and easily into electronic files. I loved Simulation but always hated printing the huge packets (even front and they back they could be like 6-10 pages per kid). I’m saving trees and still using the content the kids love. I just started our first simulation (the Explorer’s one) and already had kids thanking me and telling me how much fun they were having. Learning doesn’t have to look like textbooks and worksheets, people!

Art Integration, STEAM, Uncategorized

Art Integration in Upper Elementary

My favorite subject in school was always art. This recent Mind Shift article got me thinking about how I am using (or not using) art in my classroom.

During my Sharing the Planet unit, I teach Native American regions, early European Explorers, and plant and animal classification. This interdisciplinary unit focuses on the central idea: Native communities are altered when new elements are introduced.

For the Native American regions, we do a small craft for each region: paper canoes for Eastern Woodlands, Teepees for Great Plains, sand art for Southwestern, and totem poles for Pacific Northwest. I even have a 7-foot totem pole that we can complete as a class. This year, I also started a weaving project with wampum belts and the kids have loved it! I tied it into math as well, working on patterns; transformations, reflections, and rotations.

During our study of habitats and biomes, I started a torn art project. The students had to pick one habitat/biome we have studied in class. They were to create a scene from the habitat using torn pieces of construction paper, magazine pages, and tissue paper without using scissors! They had to include at least two examples of plant life and one example of animal life that is native to the habitat. I found examples on Pinterest and posted them to Google Classroom in a Doc. Finally, the students use their knowledge of animal classification to design their own zoo.

Finally, their summative assessment involves creating a cartoon similar to the Mark Trail Sunday comic strip by James Allen. Students had to pick an invasive species (or put a species in a new habitat) and explain how the original habitat would be affected. The specifics can be found here. As always, I like to include choice in my projects, so they could either draw them, or create them on a Google Slide.

For my second unit, How the World Works, I teach early European settlement in North America with the water cycle and weather. This interdisciplinary unit focuses on the central idea: Natural cycles are interconnected and impact the world.

For weather, I have a few ideas (thanks, Pinterest.) In the past, I’ve done the tornado in a jar, but would like to add more art to this unit. I was thinking of doing crayon and water color clouds, textured tin foil art, sensory snow, rain and wind process art, or even salt and water color art. The summative assessment for this unit is a written DBQ (Document Based Question).

For social studies, I have the students create a colonist. They research names, jobs from the 1400’s, and dress their colonist accordingly. I saw this post on having the kids trace themselves on butcher paper and could make the colonist project really come to life! We also work on Colonial Quilts, a Scholastic activity, and combine our individual squares to make a large class “quilt”. This year, I would like to make hand-dipped candles and/or weave tapestries to show how hard and labor-intensive life was back then. Do I dare try needlepoint? Corn husk dolls are popular and I found some guides here and here. There is even a yarn version…which might be easier.


Check back for a future post on integrating art into other units. And leave a comment with how you’re using art in your classroom. I’d love to get new ideas!

Back-To-School, First Day, Flexible Seating, Inquiry-Based, Student Choice, Uncategorized

Reflections from Day 1, Year 8

I was very excited to start school this year. I have a new teaching partner, a new class theme, and 28 newly minted fourth graders. I wanted my first day of school to look different than previous years. I wanted to build excitement and focus on fostering individual relationships with the kids. While I have always greeted my students at the door every morning, I made an effort last year to have the biggest smile and greet each kid by name, and a positive comment. Even on my most exhausting mornings, by the time the ninth or tenth kid came in my room, I really was happier and that rubbed off on the kids (and me!). Fake it until you make it. 

While I have flexible seating, I chose to put name tags on the seats today. I have several students who are new to the school and I didn’t want them to feel isolated or left out. The first day in a new classroom is overwhelming as it is, so I wanted there to be as little distractions as possible.  It really does pain me for the first, maybe month, of school as students run down the hall to pick the “best” seat first or grab a table with only their besties. They just aren’t ready to handle that much freedom and choice after four years of assigned seating habits. I clinch my teeth, let them sort it out, intervene when necessary, and wait for it to pass. Around mid-September they start to realize they will get to sit in all their favorite places, and the novelty wears off.

I had a packet on each desk with some coloring pages, crossword puzzles, etc so there was something there to do when they finally settled on a seat. There were directions (dry erase markers on plastic picture frames…genius!) at each table and colored pencils available as well. The packet had one blue page with some personal questions about how they learn best and what they hope to get out of fourth grade. This was on colored paper and I collected it at the end of the day. (It also did double-duty as I modeled how I collect all my papers for the year…calling them in reverse alphabetical order).

I went over my expectations for flexible seating next. I described how I want the students to select a seat for the hour/day/subject and I have a student model how each seat would look when used appropriately  (and what it would look like when used inappropriately). Finally the students signed their “Flexible Seating Contract” and went to foreign language class. I like to follow my schedule as closely as possible even the first week of school. During my math period, we set up our math notebooks, during science, the same. It is my belief that students thrive with structure and routine. When they know what is expected of them (every morning after the bell rings, we do math…therefore they anticipate and have math notebooks ready) the easier it is for them and me.

In between setting up notebooks for each subject area, (this takes a while…gluing in an index page, writing our table of contents, numbering every page), I put some posters on each table. Each had a question or sentence starter. I got many of the ideas from the blog Making Good Humans which was posted on the Making the PYP Happen Facebook page. Even if you don’t teach at an IB school, this page is worth the “follow”. My questions were as follows, and students responded with markers:

What stops you from learning?
What helps you learn best?
What does it mean to be an inquirer?
What was the most fun day you had all summer?
Last year I….
This year I’m going to…
The answer is “Mrs. Biggs”. What could the question be?

The students rotated from table to table, adding their response until they had visited all six tables. This also was important because it showed the students we move around a lot in my class and it gave each student a chance to try each seat, even if just for a minute. Some of the responses were silly (Last year I… was in 3rd grade) but we discussed those and modeled new ones, which were much better (Last year I struggled in math; Last year I loved science because we did hands-on experiments), etc.

Some of my other first day go-to activities involve index cards. On one, I have the students write 3-5 questions down that they may have. It could be a question about my personal life, our classroom, or the year as a whole. Throughout the day, I read a few and answer them during transitions or if we have a few minutes to spare. This is a safe way to let students anonymously ask me anything. I obviously only read and answer the appropriate ones. On the second index cards, we play “Two Truths and a Lie”. I ask the students to write down two true things about themselves and one lie. I always read mine first and see if the kids can spot the lie. I also pull a few index cards throughout the day and have the class guess. By the end of the day, they are begging to me read a few more. I know this game gets old in the upper grades, but fourth graders have always loved it.
This has been a longer-than-expected post, but I had such a wonderful first day. I’m really looking forward to this year. What are some of your favorite first-day activities?

Classroom Theme, Uncategorized

Thinking Ahead…Way Ahead

Most of my blog posts are heavy and full of content. Here’s a little lighter note as we end the school year (and think about the next!)

I’ve had quite a few classroom themes: under the sea, jungle animals, polka dots, chevron, etc. I’ve decided to change it up next year and go for a fruity theme. I fell in love with all the cute watermelon and pineapple treats at Target in the Dollar Spot. Even my Google Classroom themes are going fruity (see pictures above).
I grabbed this watermelon pinata and thought my students could take it outside to smash on the last day of school. My fruit obsession started with these cute bulletin board ideas I saw on Pinterest. I was thinking my board would be red with each kid’s name written on a seed and the title, “Our class is one in a MELON!”

Here are some other cute things I’m collecting this summer to add to my decor:

  • Watermelon Garland (FREE) printable from Miss Bunting.
  • Fruit Garland (Etsy) from GlitterPaperScissor
  • Tropical Binder Covers (TPT) from Samantha Henry (which I use for all sorts of things since they are completely editable.)
  • Tropical Bin Labels (TPT) from Fairways and Chalkboards

How cute are these rugs? Watermelon and Citrus ?!

Last, but not least, I have a “tap jar” in my classroom. It’s a plastic container that I fill with random things throughout the year (erasers, candy, pencils, etc). Whenever we are walking somewhere in the hallway, if I tap a student on the shoulder, they get to take one thing from the tap jar when we get back to class. I tap students for good behavior…facing forward, hands at their sides, not talking, etc.  I think I’ll fill it up with runts at the start of the new year 🙂