Category Archives: Cooperative Learning

Getting Out the Pre-Holiday Wiggles! {aka Keeping your Students’ Attention in December}

adapted from an article by Rachel Stepp, M. Ed. 

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year…and also the most distracted! Enter any classroom between now and the holiday break, and you’ll find students who are a little more fidgety and a little less interested in long division and the exploits of European explorers. But, have no fear, all you brave and determined educators out there. Here are a few easy activities you can incorporate into your December lesson plans to help channel (and burn) your students’ extra energy.

Get Crafty

Okay, this is an obvious one that you’re probably already doing, so we’ll just mention it quickly. Plan festive crafts that allow your students to engage their holiday excitement in a productive way. Here’s a site to check out if you’re searching for original ideas: 

Curriculum Tie-In: Crafts build hand-eye-coordination, encourage creativity, and promote fine motor skills. Not to mention that they’re just plain fun.

Do a “Walk and Talk”

This activity allows your students to talk (probably one of their favorite activities), walk, and be outdoors. So, during regular school-day transitions (like between subjects or after lunch), bundle up and go get some fresh air. During a walk and talk, students go outside to a track or playground where they can walk while talking with their classmates or grade level. This allows them to socialize and get a little low-key exercise.

Writing Tie-In: This activity can easily be turned “academic” by calling it a “Winter Nature Walk.” Instruct students to notice their five senses during the walk: certain sounds? sights? smells? feelings? Then, come back inside and do a little creative sensory writing using their observations. The paragraphs can be posted on cut-out snowflakes and hung around the room.

Get Techy

Head to the computer lab! Something as simple as having “history” class in the lab and exploring relevant websites together will have your students saying, “Santa who?”–at least for the next 40 minutes.

Curriculum Tie-In: Come up with a list of websites for students to explore that relate to a topic at-hand (like those European explorers), or ask your school’s computer teacher to help you select games that align with your current curriculum. You may want to create an Internet scavenger hunt, where you give students a list of fill-in-the-blank sentences or questions that they complete by finding the answers on various websites you provide.

Or, if you have a little extra time on your hands (stop laughing), you could just give your students 20 minutes of free time in the lab. School computer programs offer many possibilities, but due to time restraints, students don’t always get to use their favorite programs. They’ll enjoy exploring their favorites during a little pre-holiday free time.

Read Around the Room

Allow your students to bring one thing to school that will make reading more enjoyable for them. These things could include a beach towel, a stuffed animal, or slippers. Allow your students to have time during one day to read around the classroom with their favorite thing. You can up the anticipation-ante by bringing in a special snack like popcorn to munch while reading.

Language Arts Tie-In: Use this idea during regular reading class, when students are reading novels or nonfiction. Or, go to the library as a class first, and allow students to check out any book that interests them. Pleasure reading is still educational, you know!

Create an Obstacle Course

If your class needs to get out some energy, ask your physical education teachers to set up an obstacle course on the playground or in the gym (or get their feedback on how to do it, and have your students help you set it up themselves). Allow your students to complete the course in teams. Running, jumping and competing will help them use energy that they have (hopefully) been controlling.

Curriculum Tie-In: Obstacle courses help promote social skills, build physical abilities, develop coordination, and enhance motor skills. All good things!

Schedule Some “Me Time”

Finally, let’s just be real for a minute. Students aren’t the only ones who have trouble focusing before the holidays. Don’t forget to treat yourself to some free time after a long day of herding cats…er, I mean educating precious angels.

Tips to Try: Don’t grade papers at your desk after school. Take the stack home, put a log on the fire and slippers on your feet, and curl up on the couch to do your grading. And indulge in little pick-me-ups, like bringing your favorite warm beverage into school with you in the morning. Or plan an after-school outing or shopping trip with some of your favorite teaching peers for a Friday afternoon. Recharging your batteries will ensure that you can go the extra mile with your students before the break.

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Filed under Academic Success, Cooperative Learning, creative writing, History, Holidays, Reading, reluctant readers, Snack Time, Writing

Creating a Class Quilt

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By Rachel Stepp

One of my favorite projects is creating a class quilt (out of paper…no needles required :). This activity promotes class unity, reinforces summarizing skills, uses the strategies of visualizing, synthesizing and connecting, and creates a stunning bulletin board or wall display. How’s that for multi-tasking?

Begin with a Book

To introduce this idea, read The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston. Teach your class about the history of quilts, including how women used to use scraps from old clothing to piece together a warm quilt. Talk about how quilts can tell stories because of their different scraps. Your class will be making a quilt that will tell a story they want to share.

Quilting Steps

  1. Brainstorm different stories your students might want to tell. List their ideas on the board, which may include: something I like to do at school, all about me (personality and interests), my favorite memory, my favorite thing that we have studied this year, all about my pet, all about my family, etc.
  2. Give each student a square of white construction paper (an 8″ square is easy to cut from an 8×10 sheet, and white makes a nice background for student pictures).
  3. First, students should write a rough draft of their paragraph (or sentence, depending on age level) on notebook paper. Discuss using sensory details, correct paragraph format, etc. Modeling a sample paragraph on the board, first, is a wise idea before students begin.
  4. Their paragraphs/sentences need to be rewritten in a final draft on white paper (or a notecard) and glued onto their squares, near the bottom (to leave room for an illustration).
  5. Once their paragraphs/sentences are complete, they can begin drawing a scene on their white square to illustrate their writing.
  6. When each child has finished, mount each white square on a larger square of colored construction paper. You may choose to laminate each mounted square for a polished look, but it’s not necessary. Punch a hole in each of the four corners of the colored squares, and use yarn to tie the squares together to look like a quilt. Yarn bows look especially cute and “quilt-y.” If you have an odd number of students, use plain colored construction paper squares randomly throughout the quilt to make an even number so the quilt forms an even rectangle when pieced together.
  7. To save time, the white squares could also simply be glued to a large piece of colored bulletin board paper to make one large quilt.
  8. Be sure to give your quilt a title and hang it in a visible place so that other classes can see it. This will help to share the story of your classroom throughout the school.

This idea could also be modified as a creative book report idea: each student could create a square to summarize a book or a different chapter. The quilt could even be used to sequence an historical event or time period, like the Civil War.

By making a class quilt, your students will be able to see that they can all work together to create a masterpiece. To continue with the theme of quilts, you can invite parents into the classroom to bring in family quilts. Student connections will abound, making this activity a memorable one for all!

If your students get inspired, they may want to make a “real” quilt at home with this beginner’s “knot quilt” kit from The School Box. So darn cute!

Rachel Stepp is a graduate student at The University of Georgia who is full of creative ideas.


Filed under Activities, Art, Assessments, Classroom Community, Classroom Decor, comprehension, Cooperative Learning, creative writing, grammar, Reading, Writing

a puzzling holiday

by Elizabeth Cossick, M. Ed.

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So, whatcha doin’ on January 29? How about…a jigsaw puzzle??

If this wasn’t on your agenda this week, it should be! January 29 is National Puzzle Day. And, since puzzles are such a great way to incorporate cooperative learning while sharpening the ol’ noggin, we think we should all jump on the bandwagon of celebrating this holiday. Who’s in?

Need more convincing?

“Doing jigsaw puzzles can help build cognitive skills like visual processing, logic and reasoning, attention, and processing speed,” says Kristen Thompson, owner of LearningRx, a brain training center in Kennesaw, Georgia, that helps students overcome learning struggles. Puzzles rank at the top of their list for an impactful way to improve critical thinking.

Did You Know???

And now, here for your puzzling pleasure, are some random facts about puzzles that would impress even Alex Trebek:

· Jigsaw puzzles originated in the 1760s when maps were pasted onto wood and dissected.

· In 2008, more than 15,000 people in Ravensburg, Germany, assembled a nearly 6,500-square-foot puzzle in town square. The puzzle had 1,141,800 pieces.

· In the 1930s, puzzle manufacturer Einson Freeman convinced a toothbrush company to give away a puzzle with every toothbrush purchase. More than one million toothbrushes sold.

· No one is sure who invented National Puzzle Day, but there are various clubs dedicated to the love of puzzles.

There are lots of places online where kids can do jigsaw puzzles for free! Here’s a good starting place:

There is also a great selection of high quality puzzles for all ages available on-line from our sponsor, The School Box:


Filed under Academic Success, Activities, Cooperative Learning, Critical Thinking

A “Snowy” Idea for Indoor Recess!

by Kelli Lewis

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This is a great activity for the month of January. Wintry weather may keep your students indoors during recess, but that doesn’t mean the fun has to be canceled, too!

Chances are, your students are all wishing for snow. Well, how would you like to make your students’ wishes come true, right there inside your own classroom?! Get ready… set… throw! It’s time for an inside snowball fight for your classroom! All you need are lots and lots and lots of cotton balls (and a camera…this activity is definitely a Kodak moment!).

Here’s how to Let It Snow!

  • Have students all gather to the rug, or wherever you see that will be a good place to move around and get some wiggles out. You could even move the desks for this if you think that is a better option. Remember, do not let your students know what is about to happen! They should have NO IDEA!
  • Stand out of sight, with your cotton balls, and don’t let them see you.
  • Stand up and start throwing lots and lots of cotton balls at them.
  • Allow them to pick up the cotton balls and throw them at each other.
  • Whenever you choose, allow your students to then make snow angels in the balls that are left on the floor. They may not actually look like snow angels, but it is always something they really enjoy!! ☺
  • Then, when they get back to their desks, you could have the students write a story about the day it snowed in their classroom, imagining what it would be like if it actually did begin to snow inside! What would they do? What adventures might occur? What conflicts might arise? How would they resolve them?

Kelli Lewis is a graduate student at The University of Georgia–and one of the great teacher-contributors who submits ideas to A Learning Experience.

Do you have ideas to share, too? Write them up into a short article and submit it to If your article gets published on A Learning Experience, you’ll recieve a $35 gift card to The School Box. We always enjoy publishing new contributors!


Filed under Activities, Cooperative Learning, Writing

Comparing: an important life skill

by Kelli Lewis
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Making comparisons is an important skill for life, not to mention a standard for elementary students. Centers can include comparing objects such as buttons, bottle tops, letter tiles, cubes, etc. However, as a class, I’ve found that students enjoy comparing something else even better: each other! Here are some sorting ideas that I’ve used in my classroom before, and the students always ask to do them over and over again.

long hair vs. short hair

Question: Do more students have long hair or short hair?

  1. Estimate. Have the students look around and guess whether they think there are more people in the room who have long hair or short hair.
  2. Observe. Have the students with long hair move to one side of the room and the students with short hair move to the other side of the room. (You can define long hair as below shoulders or below chin– whatever you and your students agree upon.)
  3. Record. Write the numbers of the amounts of long hair and short hair on the board or chart paper.
  4. Compare. Discuss and determine, together as a class, which one is the most and which is the least. Who estimated correctly?

other ideas for comparing:

  • tennis shoes vs. other shoes: Are more students are wearing tennis shoes or other shoes?
  • chairs vs. people: Are more chairs or people in the classroom?
  • jeans vs. other pants: Are more students are wearing jeans or other pants?
  • boys vs. girls: Are more students boys or girls?

And, comparing always leads to a great character lesson, too: It’s important that, as you compare, you don’t accidentally let your comparisons turn into judgments. The fact that we are all different and unique is what makes our class…and our world…so wonderful!

Kelli Lewis is working on her Masters at The University of Georgia, and she is also a regular contributor to A Learning Experience.

Do you have ideas to share, too? Write them up into an article and submit it to If your article gets published on A Learning Experience, you’ll recieve a $35 gift card to The School Box!


Filed under Academic Success, Activities, Classroom Community, Cooperative Learning

All Aboard the Polar Express!

by Kelli Lewis

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One of my favorite books to read during this time of the year is The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg! Elementary students absolutely love reading it and hearing it read to them over and over. Here are some ways to engage your students with the book and some activities that you can do after reading.

Watch the movie!

After reading the book to your students, allow them to watch the movie together as a class. You could even allow your students to wear pajamas and bring their favorite stuffed animal for the movie day. Pop popcorn and have hot chocolate during the movie to make it even more festive! One way to make this academic is to incorporate Venn diagrams and have a discussion on how the movie and book compare and contrast with one another.

Create a train!

Since The Polar Express is a train, allow the students to each create a piece of the train, and then assemble it together as a class. Bring in shoe boxes and send out letters to parents requesting that they send in any extra shoe boxes that they may have lying around. Shoe boxes may also be donated from local stores.

Students can also bring in supplies to create and decorate their piece of the train. You can also contribute any materials or supplies you may have lying around, such as scraps of wrapping paper, ribbons, stickers, etc. Depending on the age and level of your students, you can also allow your students to create one piece/shoebox for the train as a group– adding cooperative learning to the mix.

Another option is to leave the train pieces/shoe boxes open (discarding the lid) and allow students to bring things to place in them, such as canned goods, toys, etc. for the less fortunate during the holiday season. Most schools are already participating in some type of event as such. Your class’s Polar Express train could be the way your class contains your donated items.

Silver bells!

Since a big part of The Polar Express is the special silver bell, it would be a special and meaningful idea to give each student their own silver bell after the day is over, to take home. This would a great conversation starter among their family and friends, and a great way for them to retell the story to others…furthering their summarizing and retelling skills in a festive way!

Kelli Lewis is a graduate student at The University of Georgia who is chock-full of great ideas and insights. We’re so glad she shares them with us at A Learning Experience!


Filed under Activities, Cooperative Learning, Reading

Gingerbread Man Math

by Kelli Lewis

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Why not get into the holiday spirit by baking cookies and learning math at the same time?

By using the following gingerbread man recipe (or any recipe, really), you can incorporate math concepts with a festive, hands-on activity.

Here’s how:

  1. Gather all materials and ingredients (listed below).
  2. Make the cookies with your class, calling on student volunteers to measure and add the various ingredients. Give everyone a chance to stir.
  3. While you’re mixing and measuring, discuss the measurements with your students: “If we need 1 ½ cups of flour, what are some ways I could measure this out using the measuring cups?” Students may respond by using the measuring cups for 1 cup along with the ½ cup.
  4. Now challenge the students to think of ways to measure the flour if you did not have the measuring cup for 1 cup: “Could we still make the cookies if we didn’t have the measuring cups for 1 cup nor the ½ cup? What if you only had the measuring cup for ¼ cup?” Explain to your students that these are real world situations that you may run into when cooking. Sharing your own stories of when you used math to cook will make the activity even more relevant and memorable.
  5. After you make the dough (and chill it according to the recipe, below), give each student a piece of wax paper for their desk. Add a small amount of flour to the wax paper and then give each student a small ball of dough. They can press the dough (or take turns using rolling pins to roll it out) to 1/8-inch thickness (they can even use their rulers to measure!) before cutting out their gingerbread man.
  6. You can either ascertain permission to use the kitchen’s oven to bake the cookies at school (a parent volunteer is helpful to take the cookies to and from the kitchen while you stay with your class in the classroom), or you can take the cookies home to bake them and bring them back. (To make sure each student gets his or her own cookie back, label foil-lined cookie sheets with students’ names in permanent marker, and place each child’s cookie on the foil by his/her name).

Materials List:

  • medium mixing bowl
  • mixing/stirring spoons
  • measuring cups
  • measuring spoons
  • refrigerator
  • oven
  • baking sheet
  • cooking spray
  • gingerbread man cookie cutter
  • wire racks
  • decorative containers/bags to store finished cookies in

Gingerbread Men Recipe (from

*Yields: 2 ½ dozen (Calories 79, Total Fat: 3.3g per serving)

* Time: total of about 1 hour & 40 minutes


• 1 (3.5 ounce) package cook and serve butterscotch pudding mix

• 1/2 cup butter

• 1/2 cup packed brown sugar

• 1 egg

• 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


1. In a medium bowl, cream together the dry butterscotch pudding mix, butter, and brown sugar until smooth. Stir in the egg. Combine the flour, baking soda, ginger, and cinnamon; stir into the pudding mixture. Cover, and chill dough until firm, about 1 hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease baking sheets. On a floured board, roll dough out to about 1/8 inch thickness, and cut into man shapes using a cookie cutter. Place cookies 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.

3. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven, until cookies are golden at the edges. Cool on wire racks.

Kelli Lewis is a graduate student at The University of Georgia and a regular contributor to A Learning Experience.

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Filed under Cooperative Learning, Math

{New} Guided Reading Activities

by Rachel Stepp

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Do you struggle with your guided reading group routine? Here is a simple idea for a five-day reading routine for the lower grades (which could easily be adapted for upper grades, as well).

Imagine your class divided into several small groups. You can work with each group for approximately 15-20 minutes depending on the number of students in your class.

Day 1: Selecting and Introducing the Book

If your school has a guided reading book library, then use it to find books that are appropriate for your students. When you first introduce the book, allow the students to do a picture walk (flip through the book, looking at the pictures) and make predictions. Then read the story aloud to the class the first time through. Make sure that your students are using their ‘tracking finger’ to follow along. After the whole group has read the book together, ask the students to whisper read to themselves as you listen in. Make sure that the students read the book enough times so that you have time to walk around the class and listen to each student read.

Day 2: Learning New Words

Begin the second day by reviewing and rereading the book from day one. Check ‘tracking fingers’ like you did previously, and monitor the students as they read to themselves. After they have reread the book, talk about new words from the story. You can write these words on index cards to add them to the word wall, if your class has one. Have your students practice saying the words and talk about their meanings. You can have the students write out new words on individual white boards if time allows.

Day 3: Be an Illustrator!

Once again, begin the day by allowing your students to reread their stories. Ask comprehension questions related to the text and pictures (“Why do you think he did that?” “What’s going on in that picture?” “What did you think about that part?”)–to get students to think deeper about what they’re reading.

Now it’s time to let your students’ creativity shine: tell them that they are going to become the illustrator for a page in the story! After they draw their favorite scene, they can write a caption. Depending on students’ writing abilities, their captions may range from one word to paragraphs. This will help them practice their spelling and attention to story sequence and details.

Day 4: Social Reading

On this day, once again reread the story, but allow your students to do this with a partner. Let them move about the room for a few minutes as they read to each other. Once everyone has had the chance to read, bring them back together and review the new words. The students can try to read new or unfamiliar words on their own by sounding them out or using context clues. At the end of this day, allow your students to take home their books so that they can read them with their families.

Day 5: Working on Writing

Since you sent the books home with your students the day before, you might not have them all back on day five (let’s be realistic). So, on this day, orally talk about the story. Tell the students to write words or sentences summarizing the story’s content. You might need to remind students what the story was about. Allow them to sound out words and work on their phonics skills. Also, while they are writing, ask them to check for spacing between letters and look for neat handwriting. Children can use their index fingers as a guide for how much space to leave between words.

These five days of guided reading plans are simple enough to be adapted to many classrooms and guided reading units. One final tip: Listen to your students read aloud during guided reading. This may be the only time that you will be able to hear them read one-on-one. One of the purposes of guided reading is to get to know your students’ abilities on an individualized basis, and after this week’s worth of activities, you will have witnessed oral reading, vocabulary skills, comprehension, interpersonal skills, writing, summarizing and drawing. Not too shabby for one week!

Rachel Stepp is a graduate student at The University of Georgia whose good ideas are frequently published on A Learning Experience.


Filed under Academic Success, comprehension, Cooperative Learning, Reading, reading aloud

Outside-the-Box Alphabet Activity

by Kelli Lewis

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Tired of doing the same things to teach letters to your young students? Do you simply just need a way to liven it up a little? How about getting your students active in role playing and engaged with each other by participating in some out-of-your-seat learning?!

Here’s How:

  1. Tell the students that they are all going to “become” the letters in the alphabet, beginning with uppercase letters. When you say, “Give me an ‘A’!” then your students will work together to make an “A” on the floor. For example, two students would lay down, with their heads touching and a slight angle, to create the upside-down “V” shape.  Then, another student would lay down in the middle of them to create the bar that connects the two, making a letter “A”!
  2. After your explanation, tell the students to find a place where they have room to wiggle and giggle as they lay on the floor and use their bodies to make ABC’s!
  3. Then, explain and demonstrate with your students how it is going to work. Model for them what will happen each time. You will choose the amount of students you need for the letter you’re about to call.  You may even want to draw sticks with the students’ names on them to be sure that everyone gets a turn.
  4. Be sure to go over the rules.  We don’t want anyone getting too excited and causing others to get hurt, stepped on, or trampled over!
  5. Next, choose a letter, draw the appropriate amount of sticks, tell them their letter, and let them go at it!
  6. Finally, take a picture each time the students have finished the letter. You can later print these and create a classroom alphabet book. For your pictures, you could even have another student stand behind the created letter with a paper sign that displays the letter in written or typed form.

A book that goes well with this activity and could be read beforehand is Dr. Seuss’s ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book.

Hope you have fun with this zany activity! I know your students will!

Kelli Lewis is a graduate student at The University of Georgia and a regular contributor to A Learning Experience. We’re so glad!


Filed under Academic Success, Classroom Community, Cooperative Learning, Writing

Creating a Bilingual Classroom

by Rachel Stepp

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Do you have a classroom with students that speak a native language other than English? Most schools have programs for these students where they are pulled out of the classroom several times a day in order to learn English. You can help these students, and educate your other students, by creating a bilingual environment in your general classroom.

Label Your Environment:

In your classroom, you probably have simple things such as “book bags,” “paints” and “computers” labeled in English. Why not put a label next to that one in another language, such as Spanish? This is simple and will create a bilingual, text-rich classroom where students will be able to explore the sounds and spellings of words in other languages.

If you have a calendar time each day, label your calendar (days of the week and months of the year) in Spanish as well as English. Teach your children the Spanish version of the “Days of the Week” song.

Language Lessons:

Teach your students basic words and phrases in an alternate lesson and use those words on a frequent basis. Spend about 15-20 minutes once a week teaching your students new words in an unfamiliar language. You can teach them commands such as “Look at me!” and “Sit down!” so that you can use the phrases on a daily basis. You do not have to become the foreign language teacher, but you can spend a few minutes enriching your students.

Ways to Impact all of your Students:

These activities will not only be beneficial for your ESOL students, but it will also enrich your native English speakers. Talk about different cultures and diversity in your classroom. Allow students to bring in artifacts and share traditions about their families’ cultures. For the native Spanish speaker in your class, this will help them realize that their culture is important and that while learning English, they should work to preserve their native language and culture.

These ideas are just the beginning to enriching your classroom culture. If you are nervous about bringing another language into your classroom or if you need help translating something, ask your school’s ESOL teacher to help you. The ESOL teacher can also help you translate letters and announcements for parents. Embracing your community’s cultures will help to bring everyone together in a society where students are encouraged to be proud of their heritage.

Rachel Stepp is a graduate student at The University of Georgia and a regular contributor to A Learning Experience. Lucky us!


Filed under Classroom Community, Cooperative Learning, Multicultural Community