How to Encourage Collaboration in the Classroom

By Shannon Anderson, author of Coasting Casey: A Tale of Busting Boredom in School

How to Encourage Collaboration in the ClassroomI don’t remember my teachers assigning a lot of cooperative learning activities when I was younger, but when they did require group projects, I cringed. Somehow, I always got stuck doing most of the work.

I recall plenty of information being spelled out for the end product, but not so much for the process. I don’t remember learning about how to work as a team, how to plan, or how to balance the workload. We didn’t take time afterward to reflect on our contributions and make a plan for improvement for the next time.

But as we know, with a growth mindset we can learn from what didn’t go right and do better in the future! That’s where we come in. As teachers of this generation, we must encourage collaboration and explicitly teach what that looks like, sounds like, and feels like in the classroom.

Some reasons we may do cooperative learning in the classroom include:

  • to brainstorm, problem-solve, and share ideas
  • to support each others’ learning
  • to improve communication skills
  • to develop leadership skills
  • to accomplish a task for the common good

Just as with other social skills we teach, introducing teamwork at the beginning of the year is a great way to set the tone for working collaboratively right from the starting gate. Discussing the importance of valuing others’ opinions, learning to take turns, and balancing the workload is an important key to success before attempting group work.

You may have seen acrostic posters on “GROUPS” hanging in classrooms. Why not have kids get into groups to brainstorm what each letter should stand for and make your own poster? For the G, students may suggest “Give feedback” or “Get along.” Have students create sticky notes with their teams’ ideas, and then come back together as a large group to decide what will be on your class poster.

You can role-play different scenarios and have some students be a good example and others be a nonexample of a good team member. Discuss what could be improved to have better results. You should also model and practice the language that can be used to contribute to group discussions. For example, chart sentence stems for how to agree, disagree, clarify information, summarize what someone said, or state your opinion:

  • “I agree with ___________ because . . .”
  • “I feel like _________ may not work because . . .”
  • “Can you tell me more about . . .”
  • “So, what you’re saying is . . .”
  • “I think . . .”

Help students understand the importance of working together. As a quote often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes puts it, “One’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.” Students need to have the courage to share new ideas and accept others’ ideas. We can celebrate our differences in the process because we all have something to contribute for the greater good.

The next step is putting your collaborative skill set to practice! There are all kinds of activities you can do to provide a challenge and promote teamwork. Here are some of my students’ favorites:

  • The Human Knot. Put students in groups of four to six. Instruct them to stand in a circle and grab hands with others across the circle (not next to them). Then—without letting go of one another’s hands—students try to untangle the knot so that they are once again standing in a circle, only now they are holding hands with the people on each side of them.
  • The Cup Game. Students in groups of four have six cups that they have to stack in a pyramid formation, but they can’t use their hands. Instead, make a four-person gripper out of a rubber band with four strings attached. Here’s a video showing how this works.
  • Lego Tasks. Each group is given the same number and size of Legos with instructions to build a car with a garage that will hold it. Instead of this being a race to completion, I usually give an award to the most creative group. (This encourages more brainstorming and planning.)
  • Author Chair. Each year, I buy a wooden chair or bench and sand it down. The students have to work in groups, in stations, to paint a portion of the chair. This is not a contest, just a way to work together for the common good. When it’s dry the next day, students all get to sign their names with a permanent marker. When complete, it is a special place for students to sit when sharing their work at the end of writing time every day. At the end of the year, I have a drawing for someone to keep it. (Kids get their names in the drawing throughout the year for showing kindness, initiative, and positive attitudes.)

When you sprinkle in fun activities such as these, you can keep referring back to them when other activities require more intense work or focus. If we start to have issues of bossiness or someone not contributing, I video record the groups with a tablet. Watching yourself in action is a powerful reflection tool. It helps kids realize their own strengths and weaknesses and recognize those traits in others as well. It is also important to provide an opportunity for written reflection in which students can share what went well as a group and individually and what could use improvement.

Teamwork is important, but be sure to vary the groupings students work in. Sometimes I randomly choose students for teams, sometimes I allow them to choose, and sometimes I deliberately put certain students together. It is also important to allow time for students to work independently or in pairs.

We use collaborative skills in our own lives every day. Finding ways to encourage cooperation prepares students for their futures. Try to provide an authentic context to practice, and celebrate kids when you see them doing a wonderful job working together.

Shannon Anderson, author of Penelope PerfectShannon Anderson has her master’s degree in education and is currently a third-grade teacher, high ability coordinator, and presenter and a former first-grade teacher, adjunct professor, and literacy coach. She loves spending time with her family, playing with words, teaching kids and adults, running very early in the morning, traveling to new places, and eating ice cream. She also enjoys doing author visits and events. Shannon lives in Indiana with her husband Matt and their daughters Emily and Madison.

Free Spirit books by Shannon Anderson:

Coasting Casey Penelope Perfect: A Tale of Perfectionism Gone Wild

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5 Ways to Support LGBTQ Students on the Day of Silence

By Kelly Huegel Madrone, author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens 

5 Ways to Support LGBTQ Students on the Day of SilenceOn April 27, 2018, thousands of students across the country will take a vow of silence to highlight the silencing of LGBTQ students and the invisibility of LGBTQ issues in schools.

As an educator, you can support students in many ways on this day. I’ve included at the end of this post a link to GLSEN’s (the organizer of this annual event) Educator Guide, which details many ways to support students. Rather than repeating the information in that excellent resource, I’d like to focus instead on other ways to support all students—those who identify as LGBTQ and those who don’t—on this and every other day.

1. Don’t let the Day of Silence be the only day you address LGBTQ issues.
The Day of Silence and events like it provide excellent opportunities to bring attention to issues faced by LGBTQ young people, but if you truly support queer youth, these events won’t be the only times you talk about LGBTQ issues. Create your own opportunities to have focused discussions about issues and challenges faced by LGBTQ people.

Curricular suggestions from GLSEN and other groups abound. The history of civil rights movements, for example, is an obvious tie-in. (The first Day of Silence was organized in 1996 by students at the University of Virginia in response to a class assignment on nonviolent protests.) But beyond that, look for everyday teachable moments that normalize the experiences and ideas of LGBTQ youth.

True normalcy is seamless.

2. Recognize that until LGBTQ students are safe, no students are safe.
It’s important to have discussions specifically about LGBTQ people and issues. At the same time, it’s also important to create links between queer folks and the struggles of other marginalized groups. Create opportunities for students to learn that we’re all part of a marginalized group—or several—at some point in our lives, and help them understand that until we’re all heard and appreciated, none of us has a truly safe space.

I’m big on using LGBTQ issues as a lens to understand issues that affect us all. Being silenced and feeling invisible is something most young people can identify with.

3. Teach listening.
Day of Silence and the days that follow are a perfect opportunity to teach something that even most adults have yet to learn—how to be great listeners. Two ideas are giving communication skills lessons and conducting research to uncover hidden voices and opinions.

Giving students opportunities to engage not just in debate—where they’re trying to persuade others to adopt their views—but in discussion—where the point is to walk away with an understanding of where the other person is coming from—can prove invaluable for students’ development (and for our development as a nation that could use a lot more listening).

Again, using this as an opportunity to teach students that the world is a richer and happier place when we’re all heard—by looking at life through the experiences of LGBTQ people—helps link Day of Silence to issues and challenges that affect us all.

4. Don’t just focus on students.
As someone who’s interested in supporting LGBTQ students, you can be a voice for these students among your colleagues. Talk to colleagues about these issues, the strategies and ideas you’re reading here, and why they’re important to you.

Many adults want to be supportive but simply don’t know where to start, and they are afraid to ask because they don’t want to accidentally offend anyone. Put yourself out there as a resource not just for students, but for fellow staff and administrators.

5. Ask and listen.
Some of the best opportunities adults have to teach kids are through modeling behavior. If you want to teach listening, then listen.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask someone is simply, “How can I support you?” Ask students who are participating in Day of Silence, ask the student leader of the GSA, ask the GSA faculty advisor. And then listen to their answers.

Kelly Huegel MadroneKelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, writing coach, and speaker. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to LGBT people and their families. The author of two books and more than 100 published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in New Mexico with her wife Mala and their daughter. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter @GLBTQguide or visit her website at

GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning TeensKelly is the author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.

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I Want It NOW! How to Help Preschoolers Develop Self-Control

By Molly Breen

I Want It NOW! How to Help Preschoolers Develop Self-ControlFor preschoolers (and for lots of adults) it is hard to wait for a turn; it takes self-control. Waiting, or delaying gratification, can be a big developmental challenge. Preschoolers want what they want, and they want it right now. Some children have less difficulty delaying gratification, and some kids have a much harder time. In the preschool years, all children need guidance to help them navigate delaying gratification: It’s not a hardwired skill, but the potential is there for everyone.

You may have heard of the landmark study conducted at Stanford in the late 1960s (and often replicated due to our current academic focus on grit and achievement) in which kids were given the choice to eat one marshmallow now or wait and get more marshmallows later. Walter Mischel, who designed the Stanford study, discovered through this “marshmallow test” that self-control is actually more like a muscle that we can choose to flex or not flex.

This is great news for those of us—like me—who have a hard time waiting. It means that our discipline around taking turns and waiting for what we want can be developed over time and with practice. In follow-up studies, Mischel found that the children who were able to practice self-control in the marshmallow study were more likely to be successful in their adult lives. (Success was measured in a variety of ways, like healthy body mass, higher test scores, and other conventional measures.) In addition to the learned nature of delayed gratification, Mischel discovered that the decision-making involved in self-control is also rooted in trust in the relationship. In the example of the marshmallow study, the children had to believe and trust that the adult who promised to return with more marshmallows would actually come back and deliver.

This trust in relationship that grounds self-control is why caregivers are so pivotal for the development of children’s noncognitive skills. In the preschool setting, peer or friend relationships can be very motivating as well: Once trust in a relationship is established, kids are more willing to risk taking a turn or waiting for someone to turn over a desired plaything. Or at home, when kids trust that parents will follow through, they are more motivated to finish a cleanup job in order to watch a show or receive some other benefit. It is truly one of the most delightful observations for a parent or teacher to hear a child ask, “Can I have a turn with that when you are done?” and the other child respond, “Yes, I will share when I am done.” It feels like a milestone of development. This kind of self-control lays a foundation for future success, and it takes loads and loads of practice.

In our work with kids, we can be intentional about developing trust in our relationships with them and the ensuing soft skills that will develop over time with practice. You may already be doing a lot to support the development of self-control in kids! As caregivers, we may remind children not to interrupt while we are talking (wait for a turn to talk), and we reinforce that they can trust they will have our attention later by quickly finishing up what we are saying and turning our attention to them. Over time and with a consistent response, our kids will trust that we will always give them our attention, even if they have to wait. A simple reminder, or mediator, we can use to remind kids that they can wait is to lay a hand on their arm or shoulder to let them know we are aware that they are waiting while we finish a conversation. Positive reinforcement works wonders (again, this is true for adults, too!). For example: “I knew you could do it! Thanks for not interrupting me while I was talking. What do you want me to know?”

In our work with children in a group setting, like a school or classroom, there are also built-in opportunities to develop self-control in our daily routines and interactions. Transitions are an excellent time to work on delaying gratification, particularly because they can be disruptive to our group calm. Many of us use songs to help our students remember to keep their hands to themselves. For example: “I’m ready for the hall. I’m standing straight and tall. My arms are down right at my sides. I’m ready for the hall.” You might take this a step further once you have established this as a transition routine and hum the tune without words—hello, working memory and self-control! Your learners will be delighted to discover that they can remember exactly what to do with just the prompt of the familiar tune. And later you can try “magic lips” (lips move to mouth the song, but no sound comes out). Just watch how motivated your students will be to line up, keep their hands to themselves, and move calmly. Giving a silent high five or thumbs-up to the group will let them know that you see and appreciate what they are doing.

For preschoolers, the peer-to-peer practice is often the most abundantly available and the most motivating for developing self-control—but it can also be the most challenging! So, what to do when your usually calm and kind kiddo suddenly throws herself over a toy that a friend would like to check out and begins screaming “NOOOOOOOOOO”? These three steps seem to do the trick:

  1. Defuse and name—don’t escalate: “I can see that you don’t want to share your toy.”
  2. Relate and narrate: “It can be really hard to share things we love. Can you tell me more about how you’re feeling?”
  3. Strategize: “Can we make a plan to let your friend have a turn?”

Strategizing can be tricky, but when given the opportunity, kids can actually come up with some pretty ingenious solutions!

We can set up kids for lifelong success through coaching and modeling positive examples of delaying gratification. With consistent small steps and practice, we can help build a foundation of trust in our relationships with kids and a skill set that will last a lifetime!

Molly BreenMolly Breen M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed a broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, MN, with her husband and three kids.

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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Posted in Early Childhood, Parenting | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Boost Social-Emotional Learning with Creative Dramatics

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Boost Social-Emotional Learning with Creative DramaticsSome of you may be aware that I didn’t start my career in education. In fact, my first college degree was in theater. During my undergraduate time, my father used to ask me, “What are you going to do with a theater degree?”

I went into theater because I had a real passion for acting and the art of production. After graduation, I quickly discovered there were few opportunities in the theater world where I could make a living. I wasn’t one to “suffer for my art.” I liked fancy shoes too much! So, I returned to college to get a degree in education. Where else was I going to get a daily captive audience? Little did I know how beneficial that theater training would become.

One area of focus of my theater degree was creative dramatics. Creative dramatics is an improvisational (improv) form of acting, where students learn to visualize, pretend, and reflect on experiences real and imagined. Students use different formats such as movement, pantomime, improvisation, role-playing, and group discussion to develop greater communication skills, social awareness, confidence, problem-solving abilities, and self-concept. The goal of creative dramatics is to guide children to a greater sense of self-fulfillment and acceptance (McCaslin, 2005).

Not only can creative dramatics positively impact students’ social and emotional mindfulness, increase happiness, and develop a balanced person, it can also greatly increase content understanding and literacy skills.

Benefits of Using Creative Dramatics in the ClassroomThe three main benefits of using creative dramatics in the classroom are strengthening emotional control, increasing self-concept, and improving social interactions.

Strengthening Emotional Control
Creative dramatic activities are designed to benefit the participants, not an outside audience like a production of a stage play. Therefore, students learn how to represent externally what they experience internally, allowing them to be expressive in a safe place without judgment. When students can take on the personality of an individual in a novel, role-play being someone other than themselves, or imagine being a fabricated character, they can experience emotional release and acceptance from others. Additionally, they learn through collaboration and cooperation the skills necessary for dealing with various and unknown situations.

Increasing Self-Concept
An individual’s self-concept, or self-efficacy, is formed through personal experiences with success and failure, vicarious experiences (seeing others like us be successful), social persuasion by others (what others say about us), and our own physiological state (attitude about ourselves). During creative dramatic activities, students learn quickly there are no mistakes, only opportunities, because the activities are unscripted with few structures, so failure doesn’t exist. Students see others work through situations, learning from them how to solve problems and deal with the unknown. Feedback by participants after activities is intended to be corrective for “next time” and not to be a reward or punishment. Finally, students’ attitudes toward school are enhanced, because creative dramatics activities have few rules, are highly interactive, and are extremely engaging.

Improving Social Interactions
Positive social skills are among the most important and significant attributes of the human experience. In today’s world, due to advances in technology, students can be less engaged in daily robust interpersonal social interactions—thus reducing opportunities to learn and develop a wide range of acceptable social skills. Through creative dramatics activities, students learn to listen, take turns, and respect personal space. Additionally, they learn an awareness of others and how to use feedback to make positive changes in behavior. In my experience, students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) feel comfortable during creative dramatics interactions because there are few structures, and they learn effective social responses without judgment.

Using creative dramatics can greatly increase a student’s ability to deal with uncertainty and errors, an extremely helpful tool when working with gifted students who are often afraid to take intellectual risks or make mistakes. Working through a creative dramatics situation gets all members of the scene involved in collaboration to find a resolution. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Click here for a list of creative dramatics activities that I developed with Dr. Katherine McKnight. Each activity has examples of how to use the activity generally as well as within different content areas!

See, Dad—that’s what I did with that theater degree!

McCaslin, N. “Seeking the Aesthetic in Creative Drama and Theatre for Young Audiences.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 39(4) (2005): 12–19.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners

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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Ideas to Encourage Class Participation

By Justin Ashley, author of The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy

Ideas to Encourage Class ParticipationStudent buy-in is not always easy to get, but there are strategies you can use to increase student participation. The tips that follow can help.

Focus on Question Creation
Sometimes the questions we pose—whether during a close reading, Paideia seminar, or class discussion—seem confusing or boring to students. Our challenge is to ask questions that hook students into the conversation so they want to participate— not for a grade but because they want to share their perspectives or opinions.

Toward the end of a class one day, students read about four common immigration plans for the United States, ranging from complete openness to isolationism. When I asked, “If you were president, which immigration plan would you support for the country and why?” we had an intense (but respectful) debate about the issue. Even after the bell rang, students wanted to keep talking.

What I learned is that students want to answer our questions; we just have to pose the right ones. My question about immigration put students in charge of the country, which was interesting to them. Creating questions is a matching game for teachers—you need to align the learning standard (boring) with an intriguing question (engaging). My favorite book for amping up questions is Now That’s a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning by Erik M. Francis. Lots of good ideas in there.

Encourage Continuous Participation
For the kids who are already showing courage in leading the conversation, try writing a short thank-you card and giving it to them after class. This positive affirmation encourages them to continue participating in the future.

Let Students Teach Each Other
Maybe there are a few students who master the content quickly. Make them teacher assistants. Let them help support other students who have questions.

Start Small
Athletes don’t just show up and immediately start playing in a game. Before they begin game play, they stretch and warm up. They take a few shots and throw the ball around. In many lessons, we should follow the same format.

Start with a question that students answer with an elbow buddy or a partner nearby. Later, have them answer one in table groups. Then pose a question to the whole class. This way, more students will be more comfortable speaking in front of everyone since they’ve had time to progressively build their confidence by talking with a few others.

Create a Clapping Culture
Before we start group presentations, I typically tell my students a story of a time when I was speaking to a group of teachers and lost my train of thought.

There was that super awkward pause, I began to stutter, and my face turned ruby-red. That’s when one of the teachers began to clap for me and said something to the effect of, “Come on, Justin, you’ve got this.” Other teachers joined in and started clapping, encouraging me, and chanting my name. Then, the lightbulb went off in my head, my thought came back to me, and I finished the speech stronger than I had started.

I explain to my students that I have that same expectation of them. If someone gets stuck while speaking to the class, we need to step up and cheer them through it. It’s all about creating a classroom culture of encouragers, not hecklers, where we aren’t waiting for or wanting peers to fail but instead inspire them to succeed.

Make It Personal
“What makes you angry about the authority figures in your life? Your parents? Your teachers? Your principal?”

My eighth graders were typing a hundred words a minute to answer this warm-up question before we delved into the causes of the Revolutionary War.

Once I opened up the class for discussion, nearly every student raised a hand to share. By simply starting with a conversation about their own experiences, students were able to buy in and make genuine connections between their grievances and those of the colonists under the rule of King George III.

Give Students the Mic
Every lesson doesn’t have to be rigid. Some can be fluid, where you choose the topic and students choose the questions. The basic idea here is that students are more likely to answer the questions if they are the ones asking them. Two resources I definitely recommend for this are:

Extend Your Wait Time
Maddie Witter points out that the average teacher’s wait time for calling on a student after posing a question is 1.5 seconds. She suggests counting to three Mississippi in your head after posing a question. This gives kids more time to process their thinking and opens up the door for more varied participation.

Try a Simulation
Simulations encourage students to take part, especially when everyone has a role, because students depend on each other throughout the process.

When I taught elementary school, we would learn about the three branches of government by being the three branches of government. We had two sides of the room. One side was the Senate and the other the House of Representatives. They debated and voted on new laws for the class, like no booger picking. The class governor later signed off on a few and vetoed others. Students were more engaged because they had specific leadership roles, and I was more of a facilitator than a teacher.

Justin Ashley is an award-winning teacher, motivational speaker, author, and public education advocate from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he began teaching in 2007. He is also a highly sought-after speaker for professional development. He has been an inspirational keynote presenter for thousands of current and future teachers, creating an atmosphere that bounces back and forth between rapt silence and raucous laughter. In 2013, he became the only teacher ever to win both North Carolina History Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year in the same year.

Balanced Teacher PathJustin is the author of The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live, and Be Happy.

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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