Posted in general education, homeschool, how-to, mind, social studies, special education

What’s the Big Idea? Using Big Ideas and Essential Questions in Instruction

Big ideas and essential questions
Use big ideas and essential questions in your high school history class to encourage deep thinking. {Image credit: “British Empire Map in 1886,” Forgemind Archemedia via Creative Commons}

Using Big Ideas and Essential Questions in Instruction

What’s a Big Idea? How Do Big Ideas Connect to Essential Questions?

A big idea, sometimes referred to as an enduring understanding, is an important concept or idea that students can construct as the result of a unit of study. Unlike isolated facts, big ideas can’t be merely transmitted to the learner, but must be “earned” by connecting individual pieces of learning over time. Because they reflect meaning-making on the part of the learner, big ideas are constantly being revisited and revised by the learner as they gain deeper understanding. They are often transferable from one content area to another.

For example, consider the following big idea:

Different choices can lead to different outcomes.

This big idea can be used in a US History class during a study of Congress’s decision to go to war, during a Psychology class while discussing personal responsibilities, and even in a Statistics class while learning about probability. The beauty of a big idea is that, when it is presented in multiple content areas, the understanding of the learner actually deepens.

How do teachers get learners to understand big ideas? In order to get students to think deeply and make meaning as they do, teachers guide their learning through the use of essential questions. Simply stated, a big idea is the answer to an essential question. One essential question can have many big ideas as the answer. Conversely, one big idea can answer a number of different essential questions.

Big ideas span topics and subject matter, and recur throughout our lives. {Image credit: “Jack’s War Pictures 7,” Jack Trimble, 2005 via Creative Commons 2.0}

Big Ideas vs Lesson Objectives

Lesson Objectives

“My text book includes lesson objectives – are those big ideas?”

In short, no, they are not. Here is an example of a set of learning objectives from a chapter of a US History book in my classroom:

  • Identify the European nations that sent the earliest settlers to America.
  • Describe 3 differences among European colonies.
  • Name 3 reasons settlers came to the New World.
  • Explain what the Mayflower Compact was.

Because I encourage students to think beyond Eurocentric views of history, I added the following learning objective:

  • Describe the impact of European exploration on the indigenous people of the Americas and on the rest of the world.

In a nutshell, the unit describes how the Spanish, French and English were the first European settlers of North America. They had various reasons for coming here – some similar, some different. Once here, their colonies had some similarities and some differences, one being that the English created a set of rules for their new society here, called the Mayflower Compact. The arrival of Columbus to the Americas had an effect on the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere, as well as on the people of Europe and Africa, which lasts until this day (called the Columbian Exchange).

Big ideas can’t be merely transmitted by the teacher, but must be “earned” by the learner.

Consider the difference between these lesson objectives, and the following essential questions and big ideas:

  1. What is imperialism? Imperialism is the act of one country establishing colonies in far-away lands to increase the power and wealth of that country.
  2. What is human migration? Migration happens when large groups of people move from one area to another.
  3. Why do people migrate? People migrate for many different reasons – some similar, some different.
  4. Why do people make rules? People create rules to govern their society and their behavior.
  5. How does human migration affect the world? The movement of large groups of people has an effect on the group that migrates, the people who choose not to migrate, the people who are already in the new land, and, sometimes, the rest of the world.

Which lead to deeper understanding? Which can be used over and over again? Which give the teacher more “bang for the buck?”

Lesson objectives lead to convergent thinking, while essential questions are open-ended and lead to divergent thinking. {Image credit: “Mayflower II, Plymouth, MA,” by SJ Dunphy, 2006 via Creative Commons 2.0}

Why Focus on Big Ideas and Essential Questions?

Essential questions:

  • Are open-ended, having no “right answer;”
  • Are meant to be discussed, argued, and analyzed from multiple perspectives;
  • Encourage active meaning-making by learners;
  • Lead to higher-order thinking;
  • Raise additional important questions;
  • Have multiple entry points, so all learners can participate;
  • Naturally arise during study of a subject;
  • Can be considered multiple times, adding important new information each time.

Big ideas:

  • Represent the “essence” of the content;
  • Connect content from one lesson/unit to another and from one subject to another;
  • Increase opportunities to practice and master concepts, skills and strategies;
  • Allow the teacher to keep content grade-appropriate while allowing for learner differences.
Using big ideas and essential questions leads learners to construct their own meaning about important content. {Image Credit: “Inquiry Learning Word Cloud,” by Christopher Lister, 2015 via Creative Commons 2.0}

Using Big Ideas and Essential Questions in Instruction

Big ideas and essential questions can be used in many ways in the classroom.

  1. Use an essential question as a lesson activator. Have students write a question (“What is time? Why do we measure it?”) in their notebooks and take 5 minutes to answer the question before you begin a new unit. Alternatively, post the question on the board, give one minute for private consideration then discuss. Record student responses; compare to big ideas later.
  2. Use an essential question as a writing prompt. After we have considered an essential question (“What problems are common to everyone? What problems are not?”) a number of times in History class, I will use the question as a writing prompt, reminding students to use specific examples from their lives and class to support their answers.
  3. Post essential questions in the room as they are studied. As an “exit ticket,” ask students which essential questions they addressed in the preceding lesson.
  4. Use essential questions as assessments. I always try to include at least one essential question on each quiz. Even if the majority of the quiz is fact-based content, including an essential question lets me see the deeper understanding that students have learned from their studies, especially if the same question is at different times during the year. For example, last year, we focused on “Why do people do what they do?” throughout the school year, and the students saw it on a variety of assessments in life skills, group, social studies and English, throughout the year.
  5. Review using essential questions. Put essential questions in a box. Have students take turns pulling a question from the box and answering it aloud.
  6. Sort big ideas by essential question. Pass out big ideas learned, to date. As a review, have students match big ideas to one or more essential question.
Asking questions is an innate human characteristic. Utilize it to promote student meaning-making. {Image Credit: “Why Do Humans Q,” by Meadow Saffron, 2006, via Creative Commons 2.0}

For More Information

For more information on big ideas, essential question, and Understanding by Design, see “UbD in a Nutshell,” by Jay McTighe.

Need a jumpstart? Download “Essential Questions (and Big Ideas!) to Encourage Historical Thinking” (based on the Historical Thinking Standards of the National Center for History in Schools).

Posted in how-to, more seeds, special education

Writing IEP Goals and Objectives, Part 1: Understanding Grade-Level Standards

Why this Review?

I work as a special educator in an alternative setting, so the students on my caseload come from many different districts, and from many different special education teachers, all of whom had very different training when it came to writing IEP goals and objectives. So my kids’ IEPs look like, well, many different people wrote them!

Additionally, many of my kids come to me after being newly identified with a behavioral need. However, once they get to me, and they become more stable, their underlying or concomitant academic issues become apparent. So I need to now add academic goals to their IEPs. That probably happens to you, too.

Additionally, in a smaller district, such as mine, we don’t have a cadre of speech and language pathologists, psychologists, nurses or other individuals, so I sometimes have to use all of my special ed skills to come up with appropriate goals and objectives on, say, making healthy choices for a student with diabetes, or using specific language in conversation, for a child who uses the word “thingy” all the time.

IEP Direct has built-in pull-down menus, and you can Google all types of banks for IEP goals and objectives. But, have you ever had a student with IEP goals/objectives that seem like they were selected for someone else? It’s easy to just scan and click. But it makes our jobs so much easier if we choose the right goals and objectives in the first place.

Standards, Goals and Objectives: Review of Terms


In layman’s terms, the standard (whether Common Core Standard, National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, or Components of Social, Emotional and Intellectual Habits) is the grade-level expectation for all students, by the end of that school year, as stated in the standard.

In other words, the standard lets us know what we should expect a student in that grade to know, understand and do, as a result of the general education curriculum.

Example #1: Math, Grade 6 {Common Core Standards}

6.NS.a.1. Interpret and compute quotients of fractions, and solve word problems involving division of fractions by fractions, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem.

Example #2: Social-Emotional Learning , Early Elementary Grades {Illinois Learning Standards}

3A.1a.  Consider ethical, safety, and societal factors in making decisions - Explain why unprovoked acts that hurt others are wrong.  

Example #3: Instrumental Activities of Daily Living, Grades K-12

Make a list of all the chores you need to do. Check each chore off as it is completed.   

If a student has a disability of some sort, he comes with a document called an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), that says what his Planning and Placement Team (PPT) wants him to be able to know, understand and do, after one year of general education and specially designed instruction. These are his annual goals, which will be something different from the grade-level standard – otherwise, he wouldn’t need the goal.

Along with each goal are one to several objectives. These present the details of what the PPT wants the student to achieve, after a year of instruction. Sometimes, the annual goal will remain the same, and new objectives will layer in, especially if the goal is broad (e.g., “Katie will learn and use two new strategies for note-taking and demonstrate them successfully in all content areas”).

Often, the specially-designed instruction will be incorporated into the IEP goals and/or objectives, making it clear how the PPT wants any educator to work with that student to help him reach his annual goal.

In order to write standards-based goals and objectives, it helps to fully understand the scope of the standard, as written.
Grade Level Standards
Fractions,” by Tim Green via Creative Commons License 2.0

Unwrapping the Standard

The results of our periodic testing might tell us that a particular student needs to work on computing with fractions, specifically, dividing fractions by fractions. But this result is only based on the fact that it was items such as these that the student missed on the assessment. To use these results to write a goal and its associated objectives, we first need to understand all the components of the standard, as it applies to students in a given grade-level.

We can “unpack” the standard into its composite facts and vocabulary (what the student needs to know), embedded concepts (what she needs to understand), and the associated skills required (what she needs to be able to do). Some curriculum materials refer to these as KUDs. These are the performance standards for all students by the end of the given academic year.

Let’s use the Grade 6 math standard, listed above:

6.NS.a.1. Interpret and compute quotients of fractions, and solve word problems involving division of fractions by fractions, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem.

What the Student Needs to Know (Facts and Vocabulary)

For 6th graders, the critical vocabulary from this standard that we would want them to know and understand include quotient, and fraction.Other vocabulary we might include would include dividend and divisor, as they are related to the word quotient. We would want students to recognize, define and be able to use these terms. We would assume that students already know the vocabulary addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but we might list them as review terms, along with the word operation.

What the Student Needs to Understand (Concepts)

To find the concepts in the standard, we underline the nouns and noun phrases, like so:

  • quotients (of fractions)
  • word problems (involving division of fractions)
  • division (of fractions by fractions)

What’s the difference between what students need to know and what they need to understand? Aren’t these the same words?

Not exactly. For example, students might be familiar with an array, or base ten blocks, and use them as visual models to solve problems – in other words, they understand the concept of a visual model, but they don’t necessarily have to know the term, visual model. You can teach it to them (I usually do), but it’s not a requirement of the standard that the student know the term. On the other hand, we would expect, by grade 6, that a student would know and use the words fraction and quotient.

To put it a different way, the standard requires 6th graders to understand what a quotient is (the answer you get when you divide a number by another number; an equal share), that word problems are verbal representations of problems that can be solved with mathematics (in this case, division of fractions), and that division means breaking up an area or set of objects into equal shares. This goes beyond explaining what a word means to understanding a bigger mathematical idea.

Also worth noting is that the actual standard is the portion of the text BEFORE the “e.g.” – “Interpret and compute quotients of fractions, and solve word problems involving division of fractions by fractions.” The part after the “e.g..” constitutes one way in which the child can show what she knows.

The way I was taught was there are many possible ways to do something. However, if you’re NOT doing the part after “e.g.” in a standard, you better start! Someone very smart thought this was an appropriate strategy for your grade. In this case, if you aren’t using visual models to represent fractions and computation of fractions with your sixth graders, this standard says that is a grade-appropriate way for them to learn – not just through numerical algorithms. Also, if these are recommended ways to teach the standard to all children, then we know that students with disabilities will need something different. This would NOT be the specialized instruction.

Sometimes, the grade-level standards gives suggested strategies for teaching the standard to your students.

What the Students Needs to Be Able to Do (Skills)

Phew! That was a lot. But it was important. Often, especially in math, we teach the way we learned. In my case, it was, “Ours is not to reason why – just invert and multiply.” While we will show this numerical algorithm to the students, we need to make sure they understand WHY it works, through other means.

So, what do we expect kids to DO? For the skills, we will circle the verbs and verb phrases:

  • intepret (quotients of fractions)
  • compute (quotients of fractions)
  • solve (word problems involving division of fractions by fractions)

Implied in this standard is the following skill:

  • divide (fractions by fractions)

Suggested Strategies

As we previously saw, many standards include some suggested strategies for teaching the standard, usually separated from the standard by parentheses or the abbreviation “e.g.”

  • use visual models to represent word problems (involving division of fractions by fractions)
  • use equations to represent word problems (involving division of fractions by fractions)

Anyone familiar with the Rule of Four can see that the standard is recommending three of the four modes of representing mathematical problems (geometrical/graphical, words/verbal, and numerical/symbolic). Not included here is patterns/algebraic representation.

The Rule of Four in mathematics describes the four ways that all students should be able to represent mathematical problems. Download the poster here. {Image Credit: (c) 2019, San Francisco United School District Department of Mathematics)

Note that the standard does not tell the educator what visual model to use to teach the standard. Here’s where the special educator might use a second method to support students with disabilities.

What’s the Bottom Line?

So, to recap, I’ve unwrapped my grade-level standard, and found that, in order to master the essential components of THIS standard, my 6th students need to do the the following:

  • solve, compute and explain problems involving division of fractions by other fractions [I got these skills from underlining verbs and verb phrases in the standard]…
  • … explaining the ideas of division, fractions, quotients [I got these concepts from circling nouns and noun phrases in the standard] … by
  • … using verbal [writing, speaking], symbolic [equations] and graphical [visual model] representations [I got these suggested strategies by looking for them after the abbreviation, “e.g.”] … while
  • correctly defining and using the terms fraction, quotient, divisor and dividend [I got these terms by listing words from the standard that the students would have to understand in print and use in their speaking and writing]

There will likely be other standards in the same lesson, but this is all that is required to master this particular one.

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to use our analysis of the grade-level standard, and the needs of a student, to write appropriate standards-based goals.

Posted in general education, homeschool, how-to, more seeds, special education

Simple Daily Habits to Ignite Your Passion for Teaching

Summer Time = Time for Self-Care

For most teachers, even homeschoolers, there is a time of year when you take a break from teaching. Perhaps you teach summer school, and that break is the two weeks before summer school begins, and the two weeks before your school year starts anew. Perhaps you choose to reset all summer, leaving your classroom chores behind in June and not looking at them again until August. Perhaps, if you homeschool, you choose to take the whole Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday off, spending time on home and family for a couple of months.

Regardless of the time, we educators know that a “season of refreshing” is important for our bodies, our minds and our spirits. A time to recharge is especially for those who labor with students who have significant challenges, behaviorally, physically or emotionally. It’s hard to remain passionate, when we are just plain tired. We pour and pour all year long – summer means it’s time to refill that empty cup.

While we spend time on our physical and mental health needs over this summer, let’s take a moment to consider what routines we can establish that can serve to recharge us during the school year. After all, what we practice now can become a habit for the new school year. Wouldn’t it be nice to reignite our passion for teaching just a little, every day?

"If you're reading this then I hope something good happens to you today." by deeplifequotes is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0  ~
Make time for the good in every day. {Image Credit: deeplifequotes via Creative Commons}

Daily Routines that Refresh and Renew

Below is a list of some well-known routines that can relieve stress, renew our energy levels, and bring us peace inside. I’m sure you can think of others. Pick two or three that you want to try and set a goal to practice each one every day, for the next 21 days (because scientists say that doing something 21 days in a row makes it become a habit). At the end of the 21 days, evaluate your progress. If you are successful with something, consider adding a new item from the list. If you weren’t successful, fret not: learning specialists note that it takes between 35 and 75 successful repetitions of a new idea or skill before the average person masters it. Keep going until you get it!

Start now while you have time to practice. Then, by the time the school year arrives this fall, you will have daily routines in place that will keep you passion afire all year long.

Simple Abundance,, simple habits for self-care
Make time to do one thing that refreshes and renews your body, mind and spirit.
  • Get outside (#1). Scientists everywhere agree that getting outside is essential for your entire being. Find a time of day to spend at least 20 minutes outside. Maybe it’s a long walk with your dog (something you’ll both look forward to) or drinking your morning coffee on the patio instead of in the kitchen. I like to come home and spend time puttering in the yard. The important thing isn’t what the task is: it’s that you are out in the fresh air and sunshine, two things that are immediate mood-boosters.
  • Be artistic (#2). Art therapy has been an established practice for decades. It improves focus and patience, as well as leading to more introspection and reflection. Psychologists everywhere note the benefits of art as therapy, even if you are simply coloring a mandala. If drawing and painting isn’t your thing, play with play dough or clay. If that’s still not you, pick up that camera, or work at sewing or knitting. For me, cooking is an art form – and I love to take photographs of the finished product. Spend at least 20 minutes a day being artistic.
  • Practice gratitude (#3). It is so easy to focus on the negatives of a day. Having a gratitude routine helps bring us back to the positives of that same day. I use a journal that opens and closes each day with three things for which I’m grateful. Gratitude takes us out of ourselves for a moment, and helps us see the bigger picture of our lives. Gratitude is so powerful it can even transform a workplace. Start today by listing five things for which you are grateful. Continue for 20 more days.
  • Drink more water (#4). I confess: I am terrible about drinking enough water. And I sometimes get headaches as a result. It’s so easy to forget to drink enough, when you’re running around taking care of students. Doctors know that our bodies need adequate hydration in order to function properly. Dermatologists know that proper hydration makes our skin look younger. And experts also know that we can get our water from anything.. well… watery (including fruits, salads, and even that cup of morning coffee [despite the popular myth that coffee dehydrates you]). Make it a point to start your day with a glass of water before you do anything else.
  • Play loud music and dance (#5). Ok, I will tell the world: I dance in the kitchen while I cook. I am also a hell of a car dancer. Music and movement helps regulate your body systems, and also improves cognitive function. We know music and movement are important with small children, but it’s not just for preschoolers! So, today, start to dance like no one’s looking! See how much better you feel.
  • Turn off the screens (#6). Technology is a tool that makes so many aspects of our lives easier. However, in just a few short decades, we already see the downside of social media and other uses of technology. Set aside a regular time to turn off all your devices – maybe one day a week, one hour a day… whatever you choose. Maybe you’ll have a social media-free day, only. Maybe you’ll decide to read instead of watching TV. Pick one time and stick to it.
  • Shower or bathe in the evening (#7). I have a friend who used to work in a women’s shelter as a crisis worker. She is a kind, and warm, and caring woman – so easy to talk to. She said she made it through that job by showering when she got home, and visualizing all the negative emotions and energy she absorbed flowing off her body and down the drain. Showering in the evening also washes dust and pollen off your hair and body, and a long bubble bath can be relaxing – all of which make for a better night’s sleep. conducted a poll on the benefits of showering at night.
  • Meditate (#8). I often find I can’t fall asleep at night, because my head is full of all the things that happened throughout the day, things that I need to do tomorrow, or events that are still bouncing around in there after a life time. Meditation, the purposeful emptying of the mind, is an important tool to relax oneself, and to become more focused and self-aware. If you are a praying person, make sure that you stop talking to God, and leave empty time for Him to answer. Start with ten minutes a day. There are many online tools to teach meditation for beginners.
  • Do your favorite cardio activity for 20 minutes (#9). You don’t have to go to the gym. Walk. Ride your exercise bike. Jump rope. Dig holes in your garden. Throw a ball for your dog. Cardiovascular exercise improves your mind as well as your body. Although our days as teachers are busy, we don’t move as much as we should. My husband and I like to take an evening walk. It’s not fast, but we spend time talking about the day, looking at the scenery, and reconnecting. Do what you like, and do it every day for 21 days.
  • Go to bed early (#10). Most of us educators are chronically under-rested. I usually get up at 4:00 am each day, and leave for work at about 6:30 am. If I go to bed at 9:00 pm, it’s still not enough sleep for me. I need coffee and sometimes a nap when I get home. I know I’m not getting enough sleep, because, on the days I don’t have to work, I have well-developed, memorable dreams between 4:00 am and 6:00 am. That’s REM sleep that obviously doesn’t happen during the work week. In fact, doctors say that most people get less sleep than they think. Try to get to bed by 8:00 pm one night – let yourself read (not on your phone – see #6!) for ½ hour if you must – but turn your lights and TV out by 8:30 pm. See how you feel in the morning.
  • Take your vitamins (#11). I know the jury is still out on the role of vitamin supplements in health, although doctors have documented the benefits of vitamin supplements as people age. I know that I feel like I have more energy when I take a multi-vitamin each day. It’s likely that, in our rushed lives, we don’t eat like we should. Try starting a good vitamin regimen this summer, and see how it makes you feel.
  • Spend time with your pet (#12). We have always had a house full of pets. Each one of us has certain pets that are our sidekicks. As for me, two of our cats wait outside our bedroom door (I swear they hear my eyes flutter open), and run to my office with me, where “we” spend an hour or two writing before the day begins. They fight for my lap, and love to be hugged. The benefits of pets are well-known. Try making a time of day where you hold, pet or cuddle with a pet – even for a few minutes. Notice how the stress pours off you when you do.
  • Do something for someone else (#13). Twelve-step programs have a saying, “You can’t keep it unless you give it away.” The thing we want most comes to us when we give it to someone else, whether it’s love, or money, or peace, or a meal. A lifestyle routine of doing good for others  has been scientifically shown to increase our mental health as well as our level of happiness. Start by making a cup of coffee for your partner in the morning, or phoning a friend who comes to mind during the day. Do this every day. Make it a routine.
  • Create a private space (#14). Sarah Ban Breathnach wrote a book awhile back called Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. In it, one of the first tasks she recommends is creating a small space that is just for you. Do you have a place for yourself in your home? I recently created a small study space in the parlor of my new home. After I clean up from dinner, and everyone has retreated upstairs for the evening, I spend a few moments reading in this space. I light a candle, grab a cat or two, and turn out all the lights but the reading lamp. In the winter, I can put some logs in the fireplace. Having a space of your own is comforting. If you want a comfy place outdoors, there are ideas for that, too. Create a nook to use when school starts up again. And, while you’re at it…
  • Make it comfy (#15). The Danish have a word, hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”) which means, “comfy.” Think about what things make you feel comfortable, then practice including them more in your surroundings. We have a practice in my house of immediately changing into “comfy clothes” when we come home. Add a cup of tea and squishy socks, soft music and a candle, and I’m good to go. Read up on the hygge lifestyle to see what you can add to your home – and your classroom!
  • Use essential oils (#16). I’ve become an essential oils fan, ever since I bought an oil diffuser about a year ago. These powerful plant-based oils have a number of scientifically documented benefits, from pain relief to wound healing to relaxation and stress relief. Add a diffuser to the place where you get ready for the day, or to your night-time routine. See how it changes your mood.
  • Work with your hands (#17). There’s something about working with your hands that is an immediate stress reliever. Everyday things, like writing, or kneading dough, or pulling weeds, all have a way of improving your focus, emptying your mind and relieving tension. I find that washing dishes works like a charm, helping me relax (oh, that warm, soapy water) and melting stress from my neck and shoulders. Sometimes, I add a relaxing essential oil blend to my dishwater. But if you don’t believe me, believe these scientists in Florida who reported on dishwashing and stress relief!
  • Carve out some “me” time (#18). My colleagues have always thought me daft, getting up at 4:00 am every day. I tell everyone, even my family, that the time from 4:00 am until 6:00 am is ME time – it’s quiet, I’m most focused and alert and creative, and I get to greet the day with a sunrise every day. In this time, I pray, I read my Bible, I write, I cuddle my cats, I sip my coffee and plan my day… When I don’t have this time, I feel it all day. The importance of time alone, especially when you have a job where you do all day for others, cannot be overemphasized. Take this break to examine where you can fit alone time into your day.
  • Do what you’re good at (#19). In a world where you can be anything you want, be yourself. Make sure you allow time each day to do something you’re good at. I am a master scheduler. I can throw together a bunch of calendars or six course curricula and come up with a meeting schedule or pacing guide that fits everyone’s needs.  I like to find and share resources with others. What’s your niche? If you’re  a baker, or a chef, or a reader, or a writer, make sure that you leave time each day to pursue that which is your gift. Feeling competent improves self-concept and mood in children and adults. Sometimes, as teachers, we get to the end of the day and wonder what good came out of it. Having something we do each day that we’re good at, helps us stay balanced.
  • Celebrate achievements and note lessons learned (#20). At the end of each day, I write down three lessons learned – three things which might not have gone perfectly but gave me opportunities to do better next time. Considering these things as opportunities to learn, rather than failures, helps me grow. I also write down three wins for the day – three things which could be celebrated. Some days don’t feel like they should be celebrated, at all. By forcing myself to look for the good in each day, I am able to see my day in a more balanced way and maintain a growth mindset. Use that last block in your plan book to list these lessons learned and celebrations, or make it part of your staff meeting.
  • Make a “problems list” (#21). I once heard a story about a dad who gave his child’s nighttime “monster” a silly name, like “Booger Head.” By naming the child’s fear with a not-so-scary name, instead of denying its existence, Dad was able to make the monster seem “smaller” and less frightening. Similarly, by identifying obstacles to our peace, then jotting down one or two “right now” things we can do about it, we make the problems seem smaller and more manageable. This process, often called “name it to tame it,” is a process many psychologists use when working with anxious clients. Take time each day to list a few things that feel uncomfortable, and next to each, one thing you can do about it the next day.
  • Try a monthly challenge (#22). If you need a baby-steps method for starting daily habits of self-care, try Googling self-care challenges. Find one that seems to address your needs (whether it’s an exercise challenge, or an anti-anxiety challenge, or a de-cluttering challenge – choose one of the items, above). Stick to it, using that time you set aside for yourself previously (remember #18?).

Self-Care and You

As teachers, we give all day, and then give some more. Then we go home to our families. Making sure we protect time to replenish and refresh ourselves makes us better family members, better teachers, and better, more balanced people.

What habits have you developed to keep balanced? Let us know in the comments, below.

{ This blog is featured in Top 100 Special Education Blogs}

Posted in general education, how-to, more seeds, special education

Minimalism for Teachers

Organization: A Teacher’s Struggle

Organization of classroom materials creates calm and peace.
Organization is key to creating calm and peace in the classroom. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2014

I remember when I was a new teacher. Maybe you do, too.

That day sometime at the end of August, when you excitedly showed up to your new classroom to find a mismatch of not-enough chairs, exactly two (2) math workbooks, three raggedy copies of Charlotte’s Web, and no dry erase markers. Maybe not even a dry erase board.

I think it’s memories like this that cause most teachers to become hoarders — teachers, and, by extension, their families. My mom was an avid tag-sale shopper, and she would send me periodic “care packages” with yard-sale finds, especially if she found something in quantities of twenty. Twenty vases, twenty paint sets, twenty compasses… you get the idea.

Fast forward to the same teacher, twenty or thirty years later, and you’ll find closets and cabinets full of disorganized ox horns, chess pieces, magnifying glasses and paintbrushes. Why, just recently, we were planning the graduation ceremony for our small school, and discovered that there is, in fact, a helium shortage in the United States. Magically, one of our veteran teachers came in and declared that she had “found” two helium tanks!

All this hoarding leads to a lot of clutter. Clutter is a life-sucker, especially in a classroom where there is often little storage, and even less time to manage it.

Minimalism ~ Learning to Do More with Less

Merriam-Webster defines minimalism as a style that is characterized by extreme spareness and simplicity.

Brian Gardner, of No Sidebar, describes a number of benefits of minimalism:

  • More space to move around and a feeling of being able to breathe;
  • More focus, because you spend less time looking for or putting away STUFF;
  • More money (since you’re not buying STUFF):
  • More time for the important things in your life;
  • More mental energy for other activities.

As educators, we have enough tasks to pull us in a million directions, every day.  We don’t need to spend precious time, energy and brain space on managing material things.

So how can we apply this idea to the classroom?

Decluttering Your Way to Peace

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am NOT good at decluttering.

I can make things organized and orderly, but I have a difficult time letting go of things, when I think that I might possible have a use for them, one day. Minimalism is not something that comes naturally to me, but I find that clutter wears on me, so I want to begin to practice it. Daily.

Here are some experts’ opinions on how we (yes, you and me!) can apply the practice of minimalism to classroom areas that need decluttering.

Clutter is postponed decisions.

~ Barbara Hemphill, CEO, author, speaker


My colleagues and I spent time this year paring down the textbooks for each subject matter. We pulled out books that we knew, from experience, were tried and true, as well as ones that were newer and in good shape. We then added selections whose readability matched the literacy needs of our struggling readers. The rest we discarded – no matter how many there were.

There is a growing body of curriculum experts who feel that the wealth of up-to-date information on the Internet is making actual textbooks obsolete.  

Getting rid of textbooks is hard. But decluttering the book room was so satisfying.

Declutter the classroom by removing old, worn-out textbooks and ones that are not needed.
Discard worn-out textbooks, of course. But also declutter by removing out-of-date or unused books, no matter their condition.


Our company uses “lean management” strategies. One of these strategies is a waste walk. In this process, you survey an area as a team, noting places where resources are wasted. One area of waste in most classrooms is extra copies (an example of the type of waste known as overproduction). I forever make a few extra copies, just in case. And then I throw them away later. Or, worse yet, I save them for… even later.  Right next to the workbook I copied them from. Help me.

This month, I ruthlessly discarded extra copies. Next year, I will practice making just enough copies.

Wall décor

I once worked with a teacher whose classroom looked like she owned stock in Frank Schaffer. I envied her. Then I had students with attention issues whose eyes couldn’t ever stop moving in a colorful classroom full of what one mom of a child with ADHD refers to as “visual noise.”

Where I work now, classroom walls are lightly decorated with removable stickers. This allows us to easily replace decorations that kids remove, and helps create open spaces for eyes to land on – peaceful oases for students whose minds are already too full.

Use inexpensive, removable decals instead of large, colorful posters, to visually declutter walls.
Consider inexpensive, dollar store decals instead of big, colorful posters. Clean wall space is comforting for students and adults. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2018


One of my students has autism, and struggles with noise, change, heat, shoes… basically any sensory assault. When he is agitated, he sometimes throws furniture.

Solution? Remove extra furniture.

To the adult eye, my classroom looks Spartan: no round reading table, no study carrel, only enough desks for the students I have, no extra chairs for conferences… But you know what the kids said? “Whoa! How did the classroom get bigger?” Space is calming. It’s also safer: it allows us to clear the room quickly, in case of emergency.

Simple organization of space and choice of furniture can establish a traffic flow, and a level of safety that supports effective classroom management routines. And it gives us the feeling of open space and freedom.

Proper furniture selection and organization adds to a positive classroom environement.
Furniture arrangement that includes open spaces creates a feeling of freedom, directs traffic and adds to a positive classroom ambiance. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2015


If you are like me, you have an issue with office supplies stores. I can go into Staples to buy a printer cartridge and come out with scrapbooking materials, two kinds of highlighters and a 3D printer.

But the classroom is not Staples.

If there is already in place in the school for storage of copy paper, paper clips, ballpoint pens and masking tape, you do not need more than an immediate replacement in the classroom. In my situation, it just becomes one more thing to take away from someone who is not behaving himself. Minimally, it becomes clutter. Jodi Durgin, National Board Certified Teacher, writes about classroom supplies and decluttering – check out her post.

Minimalism would remind us that we feel good when we have what we need and use what we have, and that extra causes us energy and time. Leave the extra staples in the main office.

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, he complained to God that he was ill-equipped. God asked him what he DID have, and Moses replied, “A staff.” God told to use it. Everything you need is already in your hand. Use it. You’ll feel better.

Minimalism means having the supplies you need, and using them.
Minimalism means thinking about what classroom supplies you REALLY need… and leaving the rest in the office. Image Credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011


Now this seems like a strange category, since we live in a technological age where, until only very recently, our students had more technology in their pockets than we had in many classrooms.

We seem to have gone the other direction. In some classrooms, there are interactive white boards, personal tablets or laptops for each student, student responders, projectors…

Technology is so important, but it’s only a tool. Without a clear purpose and explicit instruction on its use, it becomes another way to clutter our classrooms. And, sometimes, I want students to use the “calculator on top of your neck.”

So consider what technology you leave out, and why. If you want kids to use their brains, put the calculators in a basket, and put them away for the period. If you want the kids to write longhand for a prompt, put the personal keyboards in the closet. If technology becomes a distraction, establish a charging station for student phones or “tech-free” days.

There is a wealth of information available on value-added use of technology in the classroom. Make it a professional goal next year to learn more.

Student work

I will confess. Sometimes, over the course of 30 years, my elbow has accidentally hit a pile of student papers and it somehow landed in the trash. Instant decluttering.

I told you. Help me.

I’ve learned, over the years, that everything doesn’t have to be GRADED graded. You know, “85%,” “4/8,” etc. Sometimes, a check will do. Then hand it back.

I have had to learn the difference between “practice papers” (which can be re-worked, corrected with a friend, corrected with an answer key, etc., and taken home) and “assignments” (which are graded and entered into the grade book). THEN I had to learn the difference between “assignments” and “assessments” (which are saved for analysis, shared in a data team, and used for progress monitoring and documenting learning).

Don't let student papers accumulate. Declutter by using paper-free practices.
Not all student work needs a paper, and not all papers need to be collected. Declutter your classroom by decreasing student paperwork. Image Credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2015

This year, my professional goal was to establish a more efficient way of collecting and organizing my grades. I found that identifying what I was going to assess and how, when I wrote up my lesson plans, made it easier for me to tell the students my expectations and also easier to decide what I was keeping at the end of the day. If I limited my “grades” to one item per class week, per class, I found that I got just as accurate a grade as when I graded everything (yes, I did that research). Call it “advanced organization.” It was just a smarter way to operate.

Rebecca Alber at EduTopia has some amazing suggestions for minimalism when it comes to assessing and grading. Do what she says. Then turn those papers back to the students immediately. You’ll be glad at the end of the year.


I’ve worked in many school settings, and the issue of “consumables” is always a hot-button topic.

When I was an instructional coach and in charge of ordering textbooks, I learned that publishing companies make their money from 1) teacher’s guides (which are really expensive) and 2) consumables. They usually throw the textbooks, themselves, in, for free. Yes, you read that right.

So schools (especially poorer ones) might buy one set of workbooks, and then never buy them, again. Or they tell the teachers not to let the students write in them. Or they tell them to save one copy and make photocopies in future years (which turn out to be just as costly as buying the workbooks).

As a result, some schools (mine, for example), have a vast assortment of miscellaneous workbooks, without any other materials, but we’re afraid to “use them.”

Please: use those workbooks. If it makes you feel better, save one copy, file it under the appropriate subject in your curriculum files, and use the rest. Use them for small groups, full classes, seat work… whatever. But use them. If you are unsure about this, please read this article on copyright law and workbooks. You will be surprised the way that we break these laws daily (and I’m not talking about photocopies).

Minimalism means using up old workbooks before you buy new ones.
Don’t buy any new workbooks until you use up old ones. Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2018

Using up those workbooks will help with organization, but there’s also something exciting for students about having a workbook of their own that they can write in. I saw this in full effect when I interned in a prison. Adult students took excellent care of workbooks that were given to them, because they were THEIRS. Having their own books made them feel important and successful.

Moving Toward Minimalism

De-cluttering has always been a simultaneous goal and obstacle for me. I wrote this post, in part, to share some things that work for me, but I also wrote it for myself, as I move toward the minimalist lifestyle.

Have what you need… Use what you have… Be at peace…

{ This blog is featured in Top 100 Special Education Blogs}

Posted in faith, how-to, spirit

Four Bible Study Activities

Christ and The Pharisees
With these four Bible study tips, students can find meaning in even the most difficult passage.

Note: The following is a post I published several years ago. In it, I describe several ways you or your high school-aged student/child can conduct a personal Bible study. I hope you find it helpful.

~ With Blessings, from Kim (6/2/2019)

Sometimes, when I study a passage, I like to look carefully at the words that are used. If we believe that all Scripture is inspired by God and complete, then the various translations should contain patterns and trends within their covers, that reveal the underlying message from the Almighty, despite variations in the specific words used. In this article, I will share with you four different word study activities that I use sometimes as part of my Bible study. Any one of them brings me new insight. I hope they bless you, too.

Yesterday, I was reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 9, verses 9-13, where Matthew joins Jesus, leaving his business as a tax collector without another thought:

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,”he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Activity #1: Counting the Words

There are 108 words in this passage, and the words “tax collectors” and “sinners” occur a total of 5 times, with the word “Jesus” appearing three times. The words “disciples” and “Pharisees” are present twice, each. No individual word, except the word “and,” occurs more than three times. The phrase “tax collector” meant more to the Jews of Jesus’ time than it does to us now. The tax collectors were local business people who were paid by the Roman government to collect local taxes. In addition to collecting the required taxes, they collected a fee, sometimes steep, from the citizens: in effect, they ripped them off through a form of graft. The taxpayers knew this, but had no choice but to patronize them. As a result, they were not at all well-liked by the citizens OR the Romans; hence, it is almost always associated with the word, “sinner” in the New Testament. We can see by the most mentioned characters (Jesus and the tax collectors/sinner), that this passage is mostly about sinners, and God’s view of the sinner.

Activity #2:  God’s Way/The World’s Way

The message of this scripture is the difference between the way that Jesus and the Pharisees treated the lesser members of society. So I decided, next, to examine each word phrase, to compare the godly way of perceiving the sinner (Jesus’ actions), versus the worldly way (those of the Pharisees). I read each phrase, then decided whether it was speaking of God’s view of things, or a world view, and sorted them. Here is the result:

God’s Way of Relating to the Sinner

  • “Jesus went on from there…” – God never ceases looking for those in need
  • “… he saw a man, Matthew…” – God actually notices us; as Miles McPherson says it, He sees the “saint within the sinner”
  • “Follow me…” – God calls us to Him and wants us to walk with Him
  • ” … having dinner at Matthew’s house…” – God fellowships with the sinner
  • … on hearing this… ”  God hears  the bad things that are said about the sinner
  • ” … It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” – God considers our sin a curable sickness
  • “Go and learn what this means … ” – God wants us to not just know the Word, but understand and live it
  • “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” – How we treat sinners is more important than gifts we give to God
  • “I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners.” – Jesus came to gather the sinners

Does this sound like anyone you know? Does this sound like you? But, more importantly, does it sound like me?

The World’s Way of Relating to the Sinner

  • When the Pharisees saw this…” – The world minds the sinner’s affairs from afar
  • ” … they asked His disciples…” – The world talks about sinners behind their backs
  • “Why does your teacher…” – The world does not claim Jesus as its teacher
  • “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” – The world questions kindness toward sinners and  refuses to associate with sinners.

Does this sound like anyone you know? Does this sound like you? But, more importantly, does it sound like me?

At the tax collector
Matthew’s story of the tax collector reminds us that we are ALL sinners… and Jesus loves us just as we are!

Activity #3: How Does God See Me?

For a glimpse at how God sees me, I can also do this exercise: take the Scripture, and substitute my name, or the words, “me” or “I” wherever I see reference to either tax collectors or sinners. It would look a little like this —

As Jesus went on from there, he saw me sitting in my . “Follow me,” he told me, and I got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at my house, many [of my friends] came and ate with him and his disciples. When the [church folk] saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with Kim and her friends?”  On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but Kim [does]. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but Kim.”

Wow… Jesus came to my office and asked me to make a dinner party for Him! AND He told the church folk that He came to the neighborhood JUST FOR ME!

Activity #4: Where do I need to check myself?

Okay. Now for the moment of truth. Let’s do the same activity, except this time substitute my name, “me” or “I” wherever they mention the Pharisees. I can substitute, in the place of “tax collectors” or “sinners” any group of people that is in need in my community, or an individual person:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a drug addict sitting [at the street corner]. “Follow me,” he told him, and the drug addict got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner [with the addict] at [the shelter], many drug addicts and alcoholics came and ate with him and his disciples. When I saw this, I asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat [at the shelter] with drug addicts and alcoholics?” On hearing this, Jesus said [to me], “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

I don’t know about you, but whenever I do this activity, substituting my own name wherever I see the name of someone who is living according to the flesh, there is always a particular line that gives me a “twinge.” When this happens, I have to stop and think about why.

I hope you found any of these study ideas helpful. Be well, and be blessed!