The ABCDs of Kindness

This activity began with a pure serendipity moment. A student had gone out of their way to help another. As a class, we were talking about it.   Suddenly, I recalled a military term – Above and Beyond the Call of Duty.

I wrote it on the board only to see blank faces across the room. Taking time to explain it, I noticed the first letters of the words were ABCD.  Using this, I asked if they would like to pay attention to ABCD moments. They bought the concept, and we were off and running. These were fourth graders.

First, they talked about ways to be kind and help others. I kept a list.

Next, someone suggested that we make something to hand out. They decided circles with numbers or points written on them would show the level of the kindness. As the teacher, I would determine how many points the child got for being kind. (Their list gave me direction.)

One computer literate student offered to create circles at home and put numbers on them. The class told her what numbers.  (They were about 5 or 6 inches across.) When she brought them in, I ran off copies on heavier paper. The students then took them home to decorate and color. After they brought them back, I laminated them. Then they cut them out.

Wow. It was a fabulous undertaking!


Once we had our stack of circles – and they were beautiful! – paying attention to kindnesses began…and the kindnesses increased. Picking up a dropped pencil, opening a door, letting someone else go first. For many, it was an art. Baggies were brought in to keep their ABCDs in. Students began giving them to each other.  Parents who dropped by mentioned them.

Then, the end of the year neared. What would be done with them?  An auction was decided. I cleaned out closets and checked Good Will.  Some student brought in items.

The day came, and everyone had their bag of ABCD circles.  The rule was only three bids per item. It was explained that we might run out of items, but fun held on.

Then, the surprise. One boy had no ABCD circles. I paused. I asked. The children told me. Every time he earned an ABCD circle, he gave it to someone.   The next step was a student suggestion and agreed upon by all – he would get first choice of the auction items. He was amazed. I was grateful.


The auction went on, they traded items and changed their minds. We had a good time.

This happened in the second half of the school year, so it hadn’t gone on for a long time.  But, I share this. It might work for you and your students. Or, something like it.

Individualize Students’ Worksheets

A future WALL-E world.

A future WALL-E world.

Teaching first grade for the first time, my experienced co-teachers offered to help. Each Monday morning, they left a stack of worksheets for the week. We’re talking of a stack at least eight inches high! The stacks of papers reminded me of WALL-E, a children’s animated film of our world covered in trash. Reading, practice printing, math, the seasons, the holidays, coloring, cut outs – no worksheet was left out.

I was worried. While teaching fourth grade, my principal had admonished me, “If you hand it out, hand it back the next day.” Were my evenings about to be filled with correcting worksheets?

As many teachers know, students can finish their worksheets faster than you can hand them out much less correct them. Why?  Because the usual worksheet directions are too simple.

Fill in the blank.
Circle the right answer.
Put an ‘x’ on the picture that doesn’t fit.
Write in the correct word.
Color the right answer.
Put a check by.


Looking at the coming week’s stack of papers, I thought: “How can the children learn, and I have my evenings free?”

The idea came: Let them create their own worksheets – let them individualize their worksheets!

For example: Learning Shapes. Each child receives a blank piece of paper, pencil and crayons. Samples of the shapes being learned are posted on the board with labels. Directions for their work might be: “What shapes are on the board? What makes that shape special? Today, you will use the shapes to draw a cat (Or an animal.) Use three different shapes.” Color? “Fill in your shapes with solid colors and designs – stripes, bubbles, even waves!”  There was no end to the possibilities! To make sure they knew the shape, I said, “Write the names of the shapes you used on the back of your picture and draw the shape next to it.”

Correcting them was a breeze. There were lots of great grades! We shared them with partners, posted them in the hall, and took them home.

My co-teachers? After two weeks of noticing that the stacks were untouched, no more were brought. Oddly enough, they never asked what my students did for practice work.



Vocabulary and Definitions. Are they writing sentences that focus on vocabulary definitions? Have them use part of the word’s definition from the dictionary in the sentence with the word.  Directions: “Look up each word. Choose part of the definition that makes sense.  Write a sensible sentence using the word and the part of the definition that makes sense.”  (This last note is so they choose a definition that fits what is being studied.)

Any Assignment. Let them choose a few of the options you offer. Or, use Creative Thinking and let them identify options and then choose.

Writing Sentences for Vocabulary Homework.  Combining a vocabulary word with a theme idea makes sentence writing go more quickly.  Before the students go home, use Creative Thinking and have them  identify themes.   For example: lunchroom, sports, the beach, zoo or farm animals. Directions: “Write one sentence for each vocabulary word and use the theme you chose.”

Fractions. You provide the list of fractions. They create their own examples of fraction pictures and share with others. ( For example: one fourth can be one fourth of a pie or a hubcap or a package of gum or the number of cars in a parking lot.) Directions: “Choose something to draw. Be sure it can be divided into equal parts.  Draw the picture. Divine it into ___ equal parts (The denominator.) Color in the parts that match the fraction. (The numerator.)

Illustrations. Move from words to pictures whenever possible as many students recall better from what is seen. Directions: “Draw a picture of the story with five details from the story.”  Option: “List the details on the back of the picture.”


Two benefits of individualized worksheets: No one can copy someone else’s homework. Students enjoy doing something that includes creativity.


Telling Time. Minute By Minute

Clocks are everywhere.

Clocks are everywhere.

 ‘Telling time’ comes with many experiences.

My second year of teaching was second grade. To keep me on schedule, I posted clocks on the board showing the time the class needed to be somewhere. Next to the paper clock was where we needed to be. Fairly soon, the children were matching the paper clock to the classroom clock. We were never late!

With higher grade levels, the schedule was posted with the digital times. An analog clock in the classroom, helped students learn to ‘translate’ the time to match the digital. Students had to ‘remind’ me when to leave the classroom so we wouldn’t be late.

My first grade had a classroom bathroom. Near the bathroom door, I put a clipboard of papers with four columns. To use the bathroom, they had to sign in and sign out. In the 1st column they put their name or initials. In the 2nd column, they put the bathroom entry time in digital format. When they came out, they put their initials in the 3rd column and the time out in the 4th column. The classroom had an analog clock.

To make it easier, asking for assistance was encouraged. Some students followed immediately behind someone else so their times would be written correctly. As needed, there were review lessons given by students.

A wonderful benefit. Many young ones were surprised when they were asked to clean up a mess they made! (The child who followed them was always quick to report the problem.) I’m not sure cleaning up one’s own ‘playfulness’ in the bathroom is allowed today, but it worked many years ago.  It took awhile for students to realize their own names had told me who created the problem.

For older students, passes were used to leave the room, and they still signed in and out. This was a nice lead in to ‘clocking in’ for a future job.

One last idea. Next to the electric pencil sharpener were posted the digital times to use it. The times were before and after classes began; and before and after lunch. Nearby were handheld pencil sharpeners and a wastebasket to be used in between the scheduled times.  But, they weren’t as much ‘fun’ as the electric. A nice benefit. This approach stopped students from sharpening pencils during teaching time and tests.


Another benefit. When the math lessons were on clocks and time, the students were solid in the basics.

Addition with 10’s


Discovering 10 Facts in Addition

Using analytical thinking, this three-part approach begins with how to find the 10 facts.

In the second part, the student discovers and practices the addition pattern of a 10 fact and a single number.

Finally, the student adds a number column that has a 10 fact added to a single number. 


                                                                                       Discovering 10 facts

To find the two numbers that added to 10, I put together baggies of plastic 20 bingo chips with a child’s name inside each one.*

To begin.

1. Each child took out ten chips.  They were asked, Can you make two groups with them? Count how many are in each group.

2. Then student was then told, “Write your number sentence.”

3. Then, I wrote their number sentences on the board. Examples included: 5+5 = 10  4+6 = 10  2+8 = 10  6+4 = 10 etc. ( I often put their work on the board to honor their efforts and to let everyone see a large set of examples.)

Then, we drew!

From rectangles to cat faces, we drew pictures to match the number sentences.  (6 cat faces + 4 cat faces = 10 cat faces)

To enrich this learning, they took turns at the board to see who could fill in the missing number of the teacher’s math sentence.  The teacher’s examples would say, 4 + ___ = 10    or ___ + 7 = 10   A worried student at the board was encouraged  to call on a friend to come up and confirm or whisper the answer. (This activity developed automatic responses in recognizing the missing number in a number sentence.)

We competed by putting two students together at the board.  Again, the teacher told a math sentence, and they wrote the math sentence including the missing number. (4 plus BLANK equals 10 became 4 + 6 = 10)  Sometimes, the missing number was the 10! (NOTE Competition is happier if everyone is good at the skill.)


Adding a 10 to one more number – a pattern

This time we used the chips to discover the pattern of adding ten to a single digit. “What happens when we make a 10 group, and put smaller amount next to it?”

1.Using their bingo chips, they built a ten group with a smaller group next to it.

2. Then they wrote down their math sentence: 10 + 4 = 14    10 + 7 = 17   1 + 10 = 11   7 + 10 = 17

3. They took turns writing their number sentences on the board.

Then, I put the math sentences on the board vertically. 10 + 4/ 14 so that the question could be asked, “Does anyone see a pattern?” (The students quickly saw that the digit in the tens place came down, and the digit in the ones place came down making a ‘teen’ number.)

We noted that ‘seventeen’ sounds a bit like, ‘seven ten’.  Hey!  Seven-ten means a 10 and 7 and that makes 17!

4. The students drew pictures next to their vertical math sentence.  (See the article: Individualize Student Worksheets).


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Adding a math column with a 10 fact and one more number


This activity combines ‘finding a 10 fact’ with ‘adding 10 to a number‘.

1.Write the following math problem vertically. A 10 fact is in each column

6 + 7 + 4 is recognized as 10 (6+4) + 7 or 17.

2. Do a several until the students say that they are ready to write their own examples.

3. Have the students work with partners to create their own addition problems. (Put a high level student with a high level student and low with low so they work at the same speed.)

4. Ask a team to come to the board and explain how to use the 10 fact in their example. Let them circle the 10 fact in color.

You will notice that the sum does not go beyond 19 at this time.


NOTE: For me, the key was my giving the students lots of examples in the early part of the lesson. Children learn naturally through patterns. (Which is why a young child will call a lion a ‘cat’.)   The next lesson(s) they worked alone with the bingo chips and writing and drawing their number sentence.  HOWEVER, set up partners if you see they need a support system.  (By forming partners with someone of the same ability, the students figure things out at the same speed. Faster students will write more examples, and may move on to the next level of thinking!)



* We counted the chips at the beginning of each class and at the end. I kept them in a desk drawer.

Build Trust

To trust children’s behavior is to trust that they want to be independent.

It’s in the little things. Students who understand the expectations for assignments can move forward independently. Once they trust that there are no mine fields waiting to trip them up, they follow directions more consistently and eventually gain their independence

Telling them exactly what is happening in a situation, gives the students the opportunity to prove that they will do what is right. There were times when I literally had no choice.

VIGNETTE   On the way to an assembly, one child needed immediate help. Telling the class that they were on their own and that they knew where to go and knew what to do, I stepped back to help the child. The rest of the class proceeded down the hall into the assembly with me at the back trusting they would enter the room and find their seats without me. They did. (Fourth graders.)

VIGNETTE   This happened to a sixth grade teacher with a self-contained classroom. His wife was expecting any moment. His class knew that he would rush out when the call came, and a sub would come. On his way to work, his wife called. He headed to the hospital. Returning to the classroom the next day, he noticed that all the papers were corrected, the room was neat, and the students happy. He asked who the substitute was. “No one,” they answered. “You forgot to call for one. When we realized what happened, we decided to go through the day as though someone was here. We knew what to do. No one ever noticed.” Amazing? Well-informed students who felt trusted led to correct independent behavior.

VIGNETTE   Just before recess, a student with a bad wound revealed to a friend that it was worse.  (It had happened at home, and he had shown me earlier. His long sleeves covered it.) (Sixth grader.) The friend immediately told me.   Checking it out, I knew he needed medical help. Telling the class that the student was now my priority and that they knew the rules and what to do, they were sent out the classroom door to walk around the building to the playground for recess. Making a fast trip to the office, his parents were called, and the student went straight to the hospital. At the end of recess, back came the class – proud and happy they did something on their own. They had proved they were trustworthy and independent. I was most grateful and told them so many times.


There will be times when the students need to be trusted. Give them that trust often and praise their follow through. It may be as simple as everyone remembering to bring their homework. or walk down the hall properly or…. (I just recalled this. My first grade students loved to have an adult compliment them on their good behavior in the hallway. When they returned to the room, as they stepped through the door, they would choose an M&M out of the box we kept them in. Two compliments meant two M&Ms.)

Productive Thinking. Hands Waving with Answers!

California poppies!


ANSWERS GALORE! Productive thinking is a great teaching technique that uses a single well-defined question to keep the students waving their hands to contribute answers. The question that brings this result is called ‘open-ended’. [The opposite question has a ‘one fact’ answer and is called a ‘closed’ question.] An open-ended question not only results in lots of answers , but sometimes unique ones.

Identifying this question takes time and thought. First, focus on the answers you want. Are the answers a list of vocabulary words? A list of project or writing ideas?  Or a list ideas that show the ideas learned for a unit just completed?  Next, write a question has lots of answers. For instance,  What words describe flowers? will result in a shorter list than What words describe Spring?  

Practice answering the question yourself.  If you can generate ten words quickly, your students will be able to do the same.

During the lesson, encourage students to use piggy-backing. This is when an answer already given is used to think of another answer. For instance, if Spring is described as ‘warm’ another student might say it is ‘rainy’ – both answers are weather related.

Put their answers on the board. Not only does this honor their effort, but it makes it easier to piggy-back.

A  follow-up discussion can determine which answers contribute best to a better understanding of the question.

Give a written assignment to encourage their use of the word list.


Which of the two questions in each sample work best?

  • Name the animals that live in the woods.  Name the land and water animals that live in the woods.
  • What happens to a polar bear if the Arctic temperature goes up ten degrees?  What happens in the Arctic when the temperature goes up ten degrees?


Productive thinking creates a learning environment that challenges, is fun – and most of all – is memorable. It increases the learner’s level of participation, and for the child, that’s a successful class activity that isn’t forgotten!


1 Week = 1 Writing Assignment

At the beginning of the school year, students need time to process their thoughts so they can write them down.                   As the year progresses, they’ll have time during the week to find quotes or research information to enrich their work.

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MONDAY   Introduce the topic. Discuss it. Read aloud from books with that information. Show a video! Show images from the Internet! Fill their thoughts with ideas!  As you share, have them identify vocabulary words.  Post this list.

TUESDAY  Ask the students to give phrases that enrich the vocabulary. Record their phrases on the board.   (‘Tree’ might become ‘a forest of oak trees’)      Have the students suggest sentences. Write them down.

WEDNESDAY   Opening and closing sentences. Have the students look over the vocabulary and writing ideas and identify a main idea. Create opening sentences with them using that idea. Have them copy one or create their own opening sentence. LEAVE A SPACE/LINE FOR A TITLE! (For a younger group, have one opening sentence and everyone copies it.)

Discuss the role of a closing sentence. (It helps the reader know that you are done writing.)  It usually relates to the opening sentence.  Have the class suggest some examples. Write them on the board. They do not write/copy one yet!

THURSDAY   Talk about the topics they might use. They pick their favorite sentences – or write their own – and copy them after their opening sentence. Have the students choose and write a closing sentence – or write their own.

FRIDAY    Identify titles.  Because they have chosen their own sentences, their titles may be different. Have them read their sentences and then have class help the reader to decide a title. List different suggestions on the board.  Now, have them write the title. Some children can make a final copy.  Others may ‘fix or finish‘.  Anyone who is done early, can draw an illustration or read the related materials you made available. (Let them share new ideas that they find out.) (NOTE There were times when a student was allowed to make a final copy at home and illustrate it. Be sure you have a copy before it goes out the door. 🙂  )

NOTE   Because so much of their work is being copied each day, encourage the students who are done quickly to add their own sentences.  Have them share their results with a partner who is doing the same thing. Partners are someone of their own ability level.

As weeks go by, the writing pattern becomes clearer.  Encourage using their own vocabulary and sentences. With the repetition of the same pattern and enrichment from sharing their sentences and the related materials, you will produce a classroom of grand writers.



Open-ended Questions Focus the Class

Lilies wide open!

An open-ended question expands the students’ thinking and captures the class.  Use this type of question to-

Begin a lesson. It will focus the students’ thoughts on what you are about to teach.

Review the end of a lesson or a unit. You will find out what they know and don’t know before the test.

Identify ideas for assignments in: writing/science/research.


To begin, construct a question that has multiple answers and is related to the theme of the lesson or the unit. I highly recommend trying this question yourself. A question with two or four answers will not work!

For instance,

How many ways… [do animals move?]

What are all the… [adjectives for the word forest?]

What are the items… [ in a Conestoga wagon?]

What are the combinations of… [the elements…the colors…or the digits from 1 to 5?]

Which [African animals] can we research?

What do we know about [water]?


Put the question on the board, and let them begin! Record their answers on the board, to honor their ideas. Plus, it helps piggy back to new ideas. Keep it positive and upbeat. If an answer seems a little wrong, let it go – the goal is lots of answers! They will notice later that the answer didn’t work.

VIGNETTE.  I was practicing this teaching technique with another teacher’s class. They had finished studying the arctic, and the open-ended question was to help them review what they had learned.    I asked, “What would happen to a polar bear if the arctic temperature went up twenty degrees?”  Their basic answers were: “He would be hot. His hair would fall out. He would move away.” That was it!    I looked over to the teacher who immediately provided a better question: “What would happen to the arctic if the arctic temperature went up twenty degrees?”  The answers flew!  I couldn’t write their responses fast enough on the board.   The question had needed a larger theme.

VIGNETTE: As an introduction to WWII, the students were asked two general open-ended questions, “What causes people to get into arguments?” and “What happens when people argue?” After recording answers to the first question on the board, they were asked to discuss the second question with a partner. For homework, they were to interview anyone they knew who had fought in a war with the question, “How do disagreements escalate into wars?” [These were high school students.]

Participation: Keep it positive and upbeat. If an answer seems a little wrong, let it go – the goal is lots of answers. During the followup discussion, items can be dropped – with a smile of course.