Cash in on Learning: Engaging Students through Interest-Based Anchor Activities

Richard Cash EdD, FSP AuthorIt’s that time of year again—that time between the end of spring break and the end of the school year. In many schools, it’s high testing season, so students and teachers alike are stressed. We want kids to continue learning, but feeling the pressures to get in all the required testing often takes away valuable time from the joys of real learning.

During this time, consider using anchor activities based on interests. Anchor activities are those activities that are “anchored” or connected to the general units of study, are interest based, and are easily picked up and put back down at a moment’s notice. Interest-based anchor activities should be ones in which students discover new information or gain a greater understanding beyond materials covered in the core content.

Steps to Offering Interest-Based Anchor Activities

Step 1: Ask students to find a topic not covered during the core content. Topics can include anything from famous individuals in the disciplines, new discoveries, unique inventions, controversial or conflicting ideas or theories, or subtopics within subject areas. Here’s a list of possible interest-based anchor activities:


  • Research famous or lesser known mathematicians
  • Study the history of mathematics around the world
  • Investigate different computing or calculating methods
Periodic_Table_Elements_Cupcakes_from Conrad Erb wikimedia commons

Elemental Cupcakes!


  • Investigate the controversies surrounding climate change (why are there opposing views?)
  • Study famous African-American, Native American, or Hispanic/Latino scientists
  • Review the history of the periodic table

Social Studies

  • Create a historical fiction story about an event in U.S. (or other nation’s) history
  • Study media piracy from the early years to now
  • Identify an emerging nation in Africa and study how it is evolving


  • Study an author not covered in class
  • Write a poem in the style of a poet you enjoy
  • Listen to an audio version of a novel and describe how the reader used different voices to relate character

Golf_Swing_Animation by Persian Poet Gal on wikimedia commonsPhysical Education

  • Study the ancient Olympic events, comparing them to modern times
  • Research famous female athletes, what challenges did they have to overcome that men didn’t (or don’t) face
  • Investigate the kinesiology involved in the sport of golf

Family and Consumer Science

  • Study how the FDA investigates new products
  • Review various savings and checking accounts to find the best deals
  • Study how canning was used during the early years of U.S. expansion

Technical Education

  • Interview a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE)
  • Detail how to build a solar-energy panel or car
  • Investigate various careers in the field of engineering

Art/Music/Performing Arts

  • Study a famous artist, musician, or actor and define the characteristics he or she possesses
  • Investigate a unique period of art, music, or theater (such as Dadaism, Modernism, Commedia dell’arte)
  • Create a work based on a particular artistic, musical, or theatrical style

Step 2: Define times for students to work on their interest-based anchor activities, such as:

  • When finished with assigned work
  • During breaks in testing
  • During “choice time” or free moments in the day
  • When unable to go outside for recess
  • As an option or a replacement for an assignment during a unit of study

Step 3: Arrange space in your classroom for interest-based anchor activities to be stored when in progress.

  • With advances in technology, students can store their materials on a jump drive or on the school’s server (“in the cloud”)
  • For non-Internet based materials, clear an easily accessible space for students to store and retrieve materials in between work times

Step 4: Provide time for students to:

  • Work with others researching the same or similar topics
  • Work on the investigations to increase student drive and motivation

Step 5: Provide resources for students who may have a hard time getting started or who may lack the access to those resources. Resources can include:

  • Websites
  • Texts
  • Magazines
  • Artwork
  • Media

Present the projectStep 6: Offer students a chance to share their work with others. This can be done by:

  • Offering time during the school day for presentations
  • Setting up a location within the school for presentations, papers, or projects to be displayed, such as the media center or in showcases
  • Creating a web page where students can post their materials
  • Having students create a website based on their topic

I’ve found when students are invested in a topic of which they have a choice and a high level of interest, a great deal of learning happens. Beyond learning the basics of a subject, interest-based anchor activities offer students relevance and meaningfulness. For more ideas of topics for interest-based anchor activities, check out Differentiation for the Gifted Learners. In Chapter 4 of the book, my coauthor Diane Heacox and I have listed numerous enrichment, enhancement, and extension ideas (E3) for various subjects and units of study. These topic ideas should not be reserved just for your gifted or advanced learners. Use these ideas with all of your students and watch them bloom into voracious learners.

DifferentiationForGiftedLearners from FSPRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally. His most recent book is Differentiation for Gifted Learners, coauthored with Diane Heacox, Ed.D. He is also author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Author Spotlight: Patrick Kelley, M.A.

The staff at Free Spirit is privileged to work with many amazing authors. We will be sharing more author spotlights with you, and hope you enjoy learning about these writers who are dedicated to helping kids succeed. The following interview was recently published in our newsletter, Upbeat News.

Kelley-Patrick-Free Spirit authorAfter working as a classroom teacher for over twenty years, Patrick Kelley, M.A., has picked up more than a few tips and tricks to make life easier for educators. In this month’s author spotlight, he shares why he decided to write a guide to help teachers better manage their workload and how his students—and passion for the job—have benefited from cutting back on busywork. Read on.

Q: What prompted you to write Teaching Smarter?

Patrick: Like many teachers, I have often been at the threshold of burnout due to the ever-increasing and ever-changing workload. There is a prevailing mindset in education that the way to fix every problem is to put the new task on the teacher. I am absolutely convinced that the road to academic success needs to be paved with less paperwork. I wrote Teaching Smarter to validate what part of the teacher workload really matters to student success and then give practical ways to get it done with minimal stress. After reading this book, I hope educators will say: “This is a relief! There is less on my plate! I can manage this.”

Q: What was the best/most rewarding part of developing this book? 

TeachingSmarterPatrick: I tested the thesis of every chapter of Teaching Smarter with my own students. I virtually read the book to them. The best part was my students teaching me what works and what doesn’t. I have to tell you that kids really think that much of what we ask them do in class is busy work and a waste of time. Many students underperform because they don’t know the rules of the game. They taught me how important it is to reveal the logistics of the teacher grading system. To them how their final grade is determined is a hidden agenda and a mystery. It was rewarding to see the educational process through their eyes.

Q: Did you like school as a kid? What were the best parts? Was there anything you didn’t love about school?

Patrick: I loved P.E. I hated math. I loved history. I endured English. I liked all subjects when the teacher demonstrated passion or unconventional thinking. I disconnected with much of the work –especially writing and worksheets.

Q: What is your favorite part of being an educator?

School_Lunch by Beau Wade wikimedia commonsPatrick: Lunch. Now, I know what you are thinking! It is not that. You see, a nice number of students eat lunch with me every day. It is the most real part of the day. They talk, they joke, they let me into their world. It is not about work. It is not about grades. There is no agenda. No standards. No objectives. Just fun. I laugh and they laugh.

Q: How about the hardest part of being an educator?

Patrick: The workload tries to follow me home every night like a stray dog. It invades my dreams. The hardest part is the feeling that I will never master the game—only manage it. Perhaps that is also the best part.

Q: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your twenty years of teaching?

Patrick: The power of humor. I am not by nature all that funny but I work at it. I get a yearbook every year and have all of my students sign it, just in case someday they are famous or infamous. They often comment on all my “jokes.” I never prepare a joke in my lesson plans. I rarely realize that I just said something funny. Sometimes they make me laugh so hard that I turn red. I think they are afraid I may keel over. We have good memories. Good memories are often founded on humor. I am able to endure the demands of teaching through humor.

Q: And finally, our favorite question for authors: What makes you a “Free Spirit”?

Patrick: I have no dancing skills whatsoever. I believe I was born that way. When students play their beloved music for me, eager to hear my approval for their exquisite taste, I offer up my best dance moves as an interpretation of my take on the song. I can’t do this often because it is hard to regain control of the class. I also have the quirky habit of getting off track and making annoying puns. Just the other day we were watching a video on the Cuban Missile Crisis and one of my dear students said that my smile was just like Nikita Khrushchev’s. I was devastated. I paused the video and walked up to the screen in the front of the room and struck up a smile side by side with the old Soviet leader. We were twins they said. There were many photos taken. They warned me it might go viral. I said, “No, no, with Khrushchev it can only go nuclear.” Annoying puns I am sorry, but you asked.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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National Youth Violence Prevention Week

By Mary Stennes Wilbourn and Alison Behnke

SAVE Natl youth violence prevention weekMarch 23–27, 2015, is National Youth Violence Prevention Week. Teachers, students, counselors, and others will be doing activities to help kids choose effective ways to reduce or prevent violence. Students will tackle topics like anger management, safety, respect, tolerance, and more. The National Association of Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) has worked with partners like Teaching Tolerance and GLSEN to develop daily activities that all schools can use in discussions about violence and rage. Check out their 2015 Daily Challenges and build some into your own version of violence prevention.

Rage is a powerful emotion—a burst of anger, often overwhelming, that all too often leads to violence. It is ingrained in us as humans, part of the fight or flight response that helped our ancient ancestors survive. Add to that the fact that we are bombarded by images of violence every day: Shootings, wars, fights, and more are depicted equally in fictional TV and on the daily news.

Controlling this burst of anger can be challenging for adults. Teens and younger kids need help understanding that anger and rage are emotions that can be controlled and learning how to channel that emotionally charged energy into constructive responses. This does not come easily, as the following excerpt from the book Rage: True Stories by Teens About Violence shows.

“The Monster Inside” by Griffin K. (pp. 45–55 of Rage)
RAGE the monster inside c Free Spirit Publishing
I’ve lived in eight different places. When I go somewhere new, I have one goal in mind: not to get into any fights. I always seem to fail at that goal, though. I’m not sure why. Everyone has a boiling point, right? My boiling point is low. After years of being abused by my father, and then stuck in residential treatment centers and group homes, I’m angry from the jump. So I flip and lose control.

In all the fights I’ve had, someone gets messed up, and it isn’t me. I feel afraid of myself, of what I’m capable of. If I don’t stop fighting, I won’t be around much longer. I’ll either be locked up or dead.

Last fall, I started at a new high school. I decided to handle myself differently, to just lie low. I was determined not to let history repeat itself. I told myself, “Sometimes it’s cool to look soft. You know what you are, so why care about what someone else thinks about you? Do you, and don’t stop.” . . .

At first I stayed cool while [other people] were messing with me, because I knew that if I were to retaliate I would have given them what they wanted—a fight. I did not want to fight. I don’t get satisfaction from hurting people. But I was getting tired of getting messed with. . . .

[One day] I was late for gym class. So I jetted out of the lunchroom and up the stairs to the second floor. At the gym doors, guess who was on the other side messing with me? The same dude who had smacked me on the back earlier.

I said, “Yo, stop playing.”

He was still standing in front of the doors, playing.

I told him, “Stop playing with me. I’m not the one.”

He said, “Do you want to fight?”

I didn’t answer the question. I attacked him. He hit me a few good times. Then I was choking him, like in slow motion, waiting for the gym staff to come and break up the fight. They weren’t coming, so I punched him in the face. Then the staff came.

The guards took me to the principal’s office. They put the handcuffs on me and took me to their office. I sat and waited for the police officer to come and take me away again. At the police station I was caged for eight hours. It was fair. I did what I did and the school did what they needed to do.

Rage excerpt textWhen all this went down, I had no emotions. I felt those guys deserved what they got. I saw no way around it.

But it’s been a year since then. . . .

Looking back, I feel that my actions were unacceptable. I wish I had backed down and taken my own advice to look soft.

When I think about how I had no feelings for so long, I feel like a monster, an animal. What happened in that school I will never forget. It scares me to this day how violently I reacted in those situations. . . .

I know that I need to get under control. I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore. Hurting gave me satisfaction at one point. It made me feel in control. It let my rage out. For a long time, hurting was the only way I knew how to feel like I would survive life.

When I look back, I see that I was always waiting for someone to intervene, someone to stop me—the teachers, my counselor, security, or the police. When I was hurting someone, I was looking around like a child, hoping someone would take control of the monster inside of me.

Now I realize I need to start depending on myself more. I need to feel control by controlling myself, not others. So now I’m back to the beginning. I’m trying to lie low again. I just hope I can take my own advice this time.

During National Youth Violence Prevention Week, stories like Griffin’s can be powerful ways to open discussion with your students. Ask them to look at the news, movies, and more to find stories of people controlling anger and seeking positive outcomes for tense situations. Talk about appropriate ways to express anger. Use the daily challenges from SAVE, or have the group create their own to practice respect, safety, and tolerance. Be sure that your students know what resources are available in their school and community when they need help with rage.

Suggested Resources:
Real Teen Voices series from FSP

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Happy Birthday, Twitter!

By Anastasia Scott, who sends out most of Free Spirit’s tweets

9 candle bday cakeMarch 21, 2015, marks the ninth anniversary of the first official tweet ever sent into the Internet abyss. Free Spirit didn’t join the party until 2009, but since then we’ve been chiming in every day with reviews of our books, the latest updates on education and social-emotional learning, and of course, many photos of our office dogs, Violet and Twiggy.

These days, Twitter has more than 288 million active users around the globe, is breaking news stories before they unfold on major news networks, and has even spurred political and cultural revolutions everywhere from Syria to Ferguson, Missouri. Needless to say, Twitter is a catalyst of change, and we’re happy to use it as a way to connect with the causes and people we admire, as well as to interact with you, our wonderful readers, all over the world. While many of you already follow Free Spirit on Twitter at @FreeSpiritBooks, we want to highlight some of our most interesting, active authors on Twitter:

Phillipe Cousteau, FSP Author

Philippe Cousteau, @pcousteau

    • If you are interested in environmental news, be sure to follow ocean advocate and CNN special correspondent, Philippe Cousteau, coauthor of Make a Splash! and Going Blue, at @pcousteau. In addition to reporting on water-related news events around the globe, Philippe shares tons of inspiring stories on how every person can better protect Earth’s lakes, rivers, and oceans.
    • Looking for advice for teens and tweens? Don’t miss the expert guidance of Annie Fox, author of our Middle School Confidential™ series, at @Annie_Fox, and Alex J. Packer, author, psychologist, and “Manners Guru to the Youth of America,” at @HowRudeBook. Both authors answer letters from real teens and consider the best course of action in dealing with an assortment of sticky, but common, parenting and coming-of-age scenarios.
    • Jill Starishevsky, author of My Body Belongs to Me, is a New York City district attorney dedicated to seeking justice for victims of child abuse and sex crimes. Follow her at @SafetyStar for tips and resources on talking to kids about body boundaries.
    • Youth Communication is a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized teens develop their full potential through reading and writing, so they can succeed in school and at work and contribute to their communities. If you love Free Spirit’s Real Teen Voices series, be sure to follow @youthcomm on Twitter for more stories written to and by young adults.
    • The Cyberbullying Research Center’s @onlinebullying Twitter account, run by Justin Patchin (@JustinPatchin) and Sameer Hinduja (@Hinduja) follows national cyberbullying incidents and shares resources and advice for teaching teens about the importance of standing up for themselves and others online. Justin and Sameer are the authors of Words Wound.
Nancy Carlson, @drawstuff Doodle courtesy

Nancy Carlson, @drawstuff
Doodle courtesy



Peruse the full list of Free Spirit’s authors on Twitter and follow us online and send us tweets at @FreeSpiritBooks. We love to hear your feedback and see how you’re using our resources in real life.

Another great resource on Twitter is the use of education-related hashtags. Don’t have the funds to attend a conference? Follow the conversation on Twitter instead. Looking for support and inspiration from people in your same position or situation? Weigh in on a themed chat. For a comprehensive list of hashtags, check out this excellent infographic. A few interesting hashtags not included on this list include #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which chronicles critical discussion in the fight for children’s literature representative of all young readers, and #FSBlog, the official hashtag for discussing Free Spirit blog posts.

What people, organizations, and hashtags do you like to follow on Twitter?

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Enter to Win Gifted Resources

This month we’re giving away a book bundle that meets the unique needs of gifted kids and their teachers:

When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers
Teaching Gifted Kids in Today’s Classroom
Differentiation for Gifted Learners

The Survival Guide for Gifted Kids
The Gifted Teen Survival Guide
The Essential Guide to Talking with Gifted Teens

To Enter:
Leave a comment below telling us how you help gifted kids and teens.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks that you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry—that’s four chances to win! Entries must be received by midnight, March 27, 2015.

The winner will be contacted via email on or around March 31, 2015, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winner must be a U.S. resident, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

Posted in Free Spirit News, Gifted Education | Tagged , | 169 Comments