Author: Evan Robb

How Can We Use Goal Setting With Our Students?

Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb, teacher and coach, has written more than 20 books on literacy. She is the author ofVocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts (Corwin, 2014) and published two books in 2016: The Intervention Toolkit for Shell and for Corwin, Read Talk Write:35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction:

Make Reaching Goals a Reality! 

It’s New Year’s—time to make resolutions! Our goals are often ambitious: For example, to lose weight, we walk several miles a day, work out four to five times a week, and/or dramatically curtail our calorie intake.  Several weeks into the new year, however, most of our goals have been placed on a back burner. Soon they’re totally forgotten.

At school, we often ask students to set learning goals in order to reach a benchmarks in reading, writing, or a content subject. However, like our own goals, students’ goals frequently go up in a puff of smoke and vanish. Though we set resolutions and goals with a strong resolve to meet each one, many fall by the wayside, never to be attained. 

Why does this happen? Often because we set goals without negotiating them with students and designing a plan that outlines how to reach them, along with a schedule for monitoring progress.

Make Negotiation Part of Goal Setting

When you negotiate goals with students, you involve them in the process and give them ownership. Here’s how I negotiated focusing an independent reading goal with Rosa, a fifth grade student.

Rosa was working on increasing her reading stamina. When I asked her to set a goal, she was able to concentrate on a self-selected book for 10 to 12 minutes. “I’m going to read and focus for 30 minutes, ” she said.

“Your goal shows a lot of enthusiasm for reading, and that pleases me. Can you aim for 30 minutes but start with more reachable times?” I asked.

Rosa remained silent for a couple of minutes and then said,

“I want to get to thirty, but maybe 15 and then 20 minutes is better.”

I nodded. “You’ll move from 15 to 20 minutes quickly because you can concentrate now for 10 minutes.  Then you can aim for and meet the 30 minute goal.”

Notice that instead of handing Rosa a goal, I posed a question to provoke her thinking. I wanted her to reflect and make the decision. Our next step would be to discuss the five steps for setting goals, so Rosa could develop a plan that she’ll revisit and update until she meets her goal.

Five Steps to Setting Goals

Having students set goals creates a desire to attain the goal, but desire, alone, won’t sustain their efforts. Students need to follow the five steps below to plan and achieve a goal.

  1. Set the goal and write it in your reader’s notebook.
  2. Determine what needs to be done to reach the goal. Record your thoughts underneath the goal.
  3. Assess the amount of time needed and how to monitor progress.
  4. Work to meet the goal.
  5. Revisit the goal, update and adjust your plan, and note progress.

Completing these five steps can make the difference between meeting and abandoning a goal. A good example of this is the story of Luke, a sixth grade student.

Luke Invests in Meeting His Goal

Every year, Luke wanted to improve his punctuation and usage, but struggled. However, once Luke used the five steps, he became invested in reaching his goal because he had a supporting plan that included bi-weekly reviews of his progress.

Luke’s paragraphs, essays, and journal writing had excellent content. However, they consistently contained run-on sentences and missing words, commas, and end-of-sentence punctuation. At a recent conference, I asked Luke to review the writing in his folder and set a goal. “I need to proof better,” he said. “Got lots of run-ons and punctuation mistakes–need to fix those.”

“Excellent goal,” I said. “Think for a moment. What you need to do? And how much time do you think you’ll need to reach your goal?”

Luke felt he needed to read his writing out loud and listen for missing words and places to put commas and periods. He was able to explain how to identify run-on sentences, and said, “I just need to rewrite them.”  Luke wrote his plan in his reader’s notebook, reviewed it, and figured he needed three weeks to revise and edit two paragraphs and a recently completed essay.

Twice a week, Luke revisited his goal and reflected on his progress. He successfully revised and edited both paragraphs in two weeks. Halfway thought the third week he re-negotiated an extra week for the essay; I happily gave it to him because Luke recognized that the longer piece required more time to reach his goal.  Using and internalizing the five steps moved Luke to meeting the learning goals he negotiated with me because he had a concrete plan to follow, review, and adjust.

Luke’s Plan

Read writing out loud.

Listen and look for missing words.

See where end punctuation goes—commas, too.

Find run-ons—rewrite them.

Read out loud again. Fix more.

Check progress on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Monitor and Celebrate!

Stay involved and monitor students’ work as they strive to meet a goal. Encourage them to negotiate more time to work and for one-on-one support if they need it, as well as to adjust their plans and schedules as necessary. Ask students to point out what worked well and what didn’t, and to express their feelings about meeting the goal. Join them in celebrating their successes, because positive feelings toward learning boost self-confidence and self-efficacy. By doing all this, you’ll create a community of learners who take responsibility for their goals and work hard to meet them.



Help Your Teachers Create 21st Century Classrooms

 This week Evan Robb offers his his ideas from a principal’s perspective. From Scholastic

To succeed in school, compete in the job market, and become a contributing citizen in our democracy and the global economy, our students need to learn in classrooms that develop the four 21st century skills, called the 4 Cs: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.

You can motivate and engage teachers to consider what kinds of instruction develop these skills by having them learn during faculty meetings in ways that you want their students to learn. When teachers experience great 21st-century classrooms, innovative types of learning become a part of teachers’ DNA and open conversations about how the 4 Cs will impact learning in their subjects.

Teachers Experience the 4Cs During Faculty Meetings

I recommend that you set aside three faculty meetings for teachers to experience the 4 Cs and connect what they’ve learned to classroom practices. It makes no sense for principals to expect students to collaborate and problem solve and then lead faculty meetings where teachers passively sit and receive information. Instead, start by dividing teachers into groups of four to six and have them choose articles to read about the 4 Cs and 21st century classrooms. In the box below, I’ve listed the URLS of five sources.

Reading Resources Teachers Can Use

First Faculty Meeting

  • Organize faculty into groups of four to six, introduce the 4Cs of 21st century learning, and invite teachers to discuss why these are important for the challenges our country and the world face today.
  • Have each group choose a spokesperson and share with everyone what their group discussed. Record teachers’ ideas on a whiteboard. Have teachers choose two articles to read.
  • Close the meeting by asking them to discuss ways they can integrate Collaboration and Communication into their classes. Groups share and you record their ideas on a whiteboard.

Second Faculty Meeting

  • Recap what was discussed at the first meeting by posting the teachers’ ideas you recorded on the whiteboard.
  • Have groups read a different article, discuss it focusing on Creativity and Critical Thinking, and how they can integrate these into their lessons. Groups choose a different spokesperson and share their ideas. Record these on a whiteboard.

Third Faculty Meeting

  • Recap what teachers discussed at the second meeting by posting the ideas you recorded on the whiteboard.
  • Ask teachers to reflect on their experiences, discussions, and reading materials and create a list of learning experiences they can integrate into their lessons.
  • Have groups share and record their thinking on a whiteboard.
  • Give each group one of the 4Cs and ask members to offer specific ways to build their 21st century skill into lessons. Groups share and discuss.

Accept Where Teachers Are in the Process

You’ll find that even with reading and discussing articles, teachers will absorb some information but not all of the key points. Like their students, their background knowledge and personal experiences will determine the types of suggestions they offer.

Below you’ll find 10 ways that teachers at your school can foster and build 21st century skills into students’ learning experiences. It’s helpful for teachers to discuss these 10 suggestions always through the lens of how each one fits into their subject.

  1. Have students sit in groups of four to six. Encourage teachers to abandon rows of desks that only separate and isolate students. For collaboration to take place and for students to have opportunities to choose and discuss materials, they need to sit in groups and work together or separate into partners who report back to the group.
  2. Allow students to choose reading materials. Invite your school librarian to meet with English and reading teachers to explain how he or she can help teachers select books that meet the diverse instructional needs of students in their classes. When teachers organize units of study by a genre, such as biography and historical fiction, they can differentiate instruction by having students read books in those genres in a range of reading levels. The school librarian can select high-quality books in the genre and separate them into stacks by reading level. Then, groups of students can browse stacks at their levels and choose books that appeal to them.
  3. Initiate student-led literary discussions. Have teachers build on the turn-and-talk strategy that asks students to turn to a classmate and discuss questions about a read-aloud text or an aspect of a lesson. The next step might be having students discuss a text for 5 to 20 minutes with a partner, using questions the students themselves composed.  Then, students can make the transition to small-group discussions.
  4. Use inquiry learning. Put the questioning process into students’ hands by asking them to compose interpretive, open-ended questions. (A question is open-ended if it has two or more answers that text evidence supports.) This is a powerful technique because students need to collaborate and communicate to write open-ended questions; they also need a deep knowledge about, and an understanding of, the reading material. Teachers can also show students how to compose guiding questions, which works well when groups read different books in a particular genre or on a specific theme. A guiding question is broad and can’t be answered in one or two sentences. For example, eighth-grade students reading science fiction wrote this guiding question: What warnings does the story give, and what in our society caused these warnings? 

  5. Invite students to debrief their discussions by asking: What worked and why? What could have been improved and how? This kind of problem solving requires students to use their creativity and communication skills to determine what went well and how to improve what didn’t.

  6. Have students set goals. Groups can set goals after they debrief a student-led discussion along with ideas for reaching those goals. Ask groups to review and discuss their suggestions for improving literary conversations immediately before the next literary conversation occurs.

  7. Integrate technology by asking all faculty members or specific departments to read an article on their computers (I use Google Docs). Then, let the communication begin! Teachers write their responses to an article and pose questions so everyone who received the article can read all the responses and questions. The next step might be to use software such as Google Docs with students. For example, teachers can post a short reading selection on Google Docs for students and have them respond to questions in writing. Students can use the articles and all responses for a whole-class discussion. In addition, students can collaborate and write a blog, informational piece, play, and so on and post their work on Google Docs for peers to read and respond to. Google also offers tools for groups to do digital storytelling and for turning data into visuals such as graphs.

  8. Have students write about reading. Consider the research by Steve Graham, Karen Harris, and Tanya Santangelo, who make it clear that when students write about books they read their comprehension improves by 24 percentile points. Writing is informal—a way to express on-the-spot reactions, connections, evaluations of information, characters’ decisions, conflicts, themes, and short summaries.

  9. Use the jigsaw strategy. If you have several questions you want students to discuss, divide the work among groups. Give each group a question and have them discuss it. Once groups discuss, they choose a spokesperson who explains the ideas discussed to the class. Not only does jigsaw advance all the 4Cs, but it also moves lessons forward.

  10. Try chat centers, a spin-off of jigsaw that gets students out of their seats and moving around the room. You can put questions about literary elements, vocabulary, or a text all students have read or listened to on five to seven sheets and post them around the room. Assign each group a chat center, have members discuss the questions, and then present their findings to the class. To communicate clearly and effectively, students have to adjust and clarify their ideas so that their classmates understand their thinking.

Closing Thoughts

Whenever a strategy is new to teachers, step back and provide them with the background knowledge and hands-on experiences that develop the depth of understanding they need to implement that strategy to full advantage for students.

The 10 ways to integrate the 4Cs into daily learning ask students to practice and refine their use of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Encourage teachers to work closely with a colleague, choose a strategy they’d like to implement, share ideas, observe one another’s classes, debrief, and when they’re both comfortable, try another one. I always invite teachers to start small and add new strategies slowly to ensure success and maintain the desire to develop the 4Cs in all students.


Read Talk Write: Developing 21st Century Skills

By Laura Robb

A group of five eighth grade students meet to develop open-ended questions for historical fiction texts about war; their instructional reading levels range from fifth to seventh grade. Students have read the first four chapters in their instructional reading books and are preparing for a student-led discussion. Even though they read different books, they know how to develop open-ended questions based on themes, conflicts, problems, and how characters cope with war—questions that lead to meaningful discussions. In fact, discussing multiple texts results in richer conversations because students can also compare and contrast wars in the context of different historical periods.

Books Students Have Selected

So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins

My Brother Sam Is Dead by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier

Number the Stars by Lois Lowery

Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder

Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers

This scenario highlights how I embed three key learning priorities that have students:

  1. Choose from a group of books at their instructional level;
  2. Read books they can learn from and discuss with other group members;
  3. Collaborate to develop questions for a discussion they will lead.

I always offer students choice of reading materials, so they invest in and commit to the reading (Miller 2009; Robb 2010). Finding books for a wide-range of reading levels is doable when you ask your school librarian to help you select books for your students’ needs—books that are worth reading, reflecting on, and discussing.

In this article, I will discuss the literary conversations students can have with a small group, the entire class, partners, and even themselves in the form of in-the-head conversations. But first, let’s take a look at how student-led conversations develop the twenty-first century skills they will need as they continue their education and eventually join a job market that requires highly developed literacy and analytical skills (Recovery 2020).

Student-Led Literary Conversations Develop 21st Century Learning Skills

Today’s classrooms should provide students with the experiences needed to develop the four 21st century skills, called the 4C’s: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. Everything students do at school should equip them with the 4C’s and build the interpersonal, creative, and analytical skills necessary for solving global problems such as limited water and food supplies, climate change, immigration, and humanitarian problems that will arise as the future unfolds.  You can develop the 4C’s with a student-centered approach in which you facilitate learning, not control it with worksheets, daily quizzes, and recitation, posing questions with one correct answer. Student-led literary conversations are one such approach that can be woven into your daily lessons.

Right from the start students collaborate in groups or with partners to compose discussion questions, estimate how much time they’ll need to complete a discussion, and decide who will be the student-facilitator that maintains the discussion’s forward motion. During discussions, students communicate directly with each other. They organize and present their ideas in ways listeners can understand and follow. Meaningful talk can lead students to recall details and then use these details to identify themes and main ideas and cite evidence that supports their thinking. Critically analyzing texts asks students to use creativity and imagination by stepping into characters’ shoes and living life as they lived it (Coles, 1990). In addition, as others share ideas, students observe creative thinking in action and see how the evidence they cited can support different viewpoints.

After the discussion, I have students debrief with two questions: What worked and why? What can we improve and how? They apply the 4C’s as they reflect on their process which results in setting goals that can improve their conversations.  One such debriefing enabled a group of eighth graders to notice that three students dominated the conversation and two did not contribute. To reach their goal of full participation, students agreed that the group facilitator would remind everyone to participate before the discussion began. And yes, there are other ways to solve this problem, but permitting students to find a solution means they collaborate to problem solve. If one solution doesn’t work, they can agree on and try another.

Not only do literary conversations strengthen students’ communication and collaboration skills, they also foster a sense of agency by inviting students to work together to compose questions that lead to discussing and uncovering layers of meaning in texts.

Initiating Literary Discussions With Interpretive Questions

Research shows that students who are taught to generate their own questions after reading can develop a deeper understanding of the text than students who receive no training and practice (Rothstein & Santana, 2011; Zimmerman & Keene, 2007).  Deeper comprehension develops because students must have a thorough knowledge of the reading material to create questions. Moreover, using their questions motivates students to discuss texts and also leads to greater independence.

Explain to students that there are two kinds of questions: open-ended, interpretive questions that have more than one answer and closed questions that have one correct answer. For example, an interpretive questions for The Giver by Lois Lowery is Why does the Giver encourage and help Jonas to escape the community? A closed question is Who does Jonas take with him when he leaves the community?  An interpretive question has more than one answer that can be supported with text evidence. Tell students that as soon as they can find two valid answers to a question, they can think about composing another question. You’ll also want to teach students to ask guiding questions so they can explore ideas in multiple texts.

Initiating Literary Discussions With Guiding Questions

In the opening of this article, I describe a unit on war that has students reading different texts. Such a unit is ideal for developing guiding questions that move beyond a specific book to exploring a topic, an issue, or a common theme. For the unit on war, students developed two guiding questions: Is there such a thing as a just war?  Why do conflicts escalate into wars?

Help students develop guiding questions for a unit of study by telling them the issue, theme, or concept they’ll be exploring. Then ask students to use the idea such as stereotyping or obstacles to compose a question that can’t be answered in one or two sentences. Guiding questions such as How do obstacles affect the course of a person’s life? or Why does stereotyping limit a person’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  compel students to read texts closely, think critically, and agree or disagree as they exchange ideas in order to build understandings and a knowledge base.

The teaching tips that follow will enable you to facilitate engaging, student-led, literary conversations.

Four Tips for Initiating a Variety of Student-Led Literary Discussions

You can engage students in talk about a text you’re reading aloud, texts they’re reading at their instructional levels, a common short text, different texts on the same genre, topic, or issue, and independent reading materials (Robb, 2016).  

Tip 1: Negotiate how much time groups will have for their literary conversations With students’ input, establish a timeline that provides a deadline date for discussions that may extend over several class periods. Let students know that they need to tell you in advance if they can’t meet a deadline. Negotiate extra time for students if they have been using class time productively.

Tip 2: Give students prompts that keep discussions moving forward. Have groups choose a member who will be in charge of using prompts such as:

  • Does anyone have a different idea?
  • Can you find text evidence that supports that idea?
  • Can you clarify your point?
  • Can you explain that term?

Tip 3: As students discuss, circulate among them and listen. Provide desk-side scaffolding for students who can benefit from 2-to-3-minute interventions, such as using context to figure out a word’s meaning or setting a purpose before reading. Note the names of students who require more time to move to independence and support them when the rest of the class reads independently.

Tip 4: Set a signal for closing a conversation. You can flick the classroom lights to get students’ attention and say something like, “You have about one minute to finish.”  Always end on a positive note by sharing what you noticed: I heard different interpretations; I liked the careful listening; I noticed that everyone wrote in their notebooks.

Implementing this approach take s time, and you should know that student-led discussions often derail at first. I recommend that teachers start with whole-class discussions so they can model and scaffold the process, and then  release responsibility to small groups and partners.

Read Talk Write

When talk precedes informal writing about reading, written responses reveal critical thinking and analysis. The research on informal writing about reading is compelling: When students write about books they read their comprehension of the text jumps 24 percentile points (Graham & Harris, 2016).  For this reason, after literary conversations I encourage students to summarize key points of their conversations in a notebook or to write about one of the open-ended questions they composed.

With his partner, Lucas discussed examples of Atticus Finch’s courage (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee). The paragraph reveals that the pair took the discussion beyond the prompt and linked it to what Jem and Scout learn about courage from their father. The odds of your students making similar connections are greater when talk precedes writing about reading because during a conversation students have the opportunity to find new connections and try out ideas in a non-threatening way.

Jem and Scout learn from their father that courage is standing up for someone who can’t stand up for themselves. When Tom and Atticus are both cornered by an angry mob, Atticus holds his ground and tries to resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner. He tries to convince the mob to let due process decide whether or not Tom is guilty. Atticus showed his courage here by not standing down no matter the threat, as all he wanted was justice. This experience taught Jem and Scout that everybody, of any race, deserves a chance at due process. “Stand up your daddy’s passing,” this quote from the Reverand shows that even though Atticus had lost the trial, everyone in the black community recognized that he had tried his hardest, deserved respect, and proved Tom was innocent. This is shown because usually people only stand up when a judge enters or exits the courtroom.

Four Student-Led Discussions

Discussions can be a quick turn-and-talk with a partner, but they should also include longer conversations that call upon students’ critical thinking skills and creativity.

Whole-Class Discussions

These can take 5 to 20 minutes and ask students to participate without raising hands. Initiate the discussion with a guiding or interpretive question; remind students to cite text evidence to support ideas. Encourage everyone to risk participating. Students listen to each other and take turns responding, being careful to wait until a classmate has finished. Jot key ideas and summarize them to close the discussion.

Small-Group Discussions

Three to six students have a discussion for 10-30 minutes and might need more than one class to complete the discussion.  As in a whole-class discussion, students take turns responding without raising hands; groups choose a peer to use prompts that keep the discussion moving forward.

Partner Discussions

Two students have an in-depth conversation about student-generated guiding and/or interpretive questions, issues, or concepts. Partners can focus on a small chunk of text (quote or chapter) or the whole text. Discussions can take 5-30 minutes and may extend over multiple class periods.

In-the-Head Conversations

Students have these conversations with themselves while reading, looking at photographs, attending a play, or watching a video or movie. Internal conversations motivate and engage students with written, oral, or visual texts. It is also a meta-cognitive tool helping students recognize when a passage confuses them, signaling the student to reread or close read to comprehend.

Assessing Literary Conversations

There are many ways to assess literary conversations including notebook entries and teacher observation forms to jot comments on students’ preparation, participation, and thinking (Daniels 2006). You can also ask students to write paragraphs and essays based on their discussions and notebook entries.  The point to remember is that when students choose texts they want to and can read, write discussion questions, and exchange ideas with peers, reading, talking, and writing about reading become engaging and meaningful.

Closing Thoughts

When you incorporate student-led literary conversations, you inspire students to read, talk, and write about materials they choose. Remember, a student-centered approach creates a community of learners who collaborate and support one another. The result? Students improve as readers, writers, communicators, and critical thinkers.


Center for Continuing & Professional Education. Report: Recovery 2020 – Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020. (

Coles, R. (1990). The call of stories: Teaching and the moral imagination.

Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Daniels, H. (2006). What’s the next big thing with literature circles? Voices from

Middle, 13(4),10-15.

Graham, S. & Harris, K. R. (2016). A path to better writing: Evidence-based practices in the classroom. The Reading Teacher, 69, 369-365.

Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every

child. New York: Jossey-Bass.

Robb, L. (2010). Teaching reading in middle school, 2nd edition. New York:


Robb, L. (2016). Read talk write: 35 lessons that teach students to analyze

fiction and nonfiction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.

Rothstein, D. & Santana, L. (2011). Teaching students to ask their own

questions. Harvard Education Letter, 27 (5), 1-2.

Zimmerman, S. & Keene, E. O. (2007). Mosaic of thought. Portsmouth, NH:


Young Adult Books

Collier, J. L. (2005). My brother Sam is dead. New York: Scholastic.

Lee, H. (1988). To kill a mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publisher.

Lowery, L. (2011).  Number the stars. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young


Lowery, L. (1993). The giver. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Myers, W.D. (2009). Sunrise over Fallujah. New York: Scholastic.

Reeder, C.  1999), Shades of gray. New York: Aladdin Books.

Watkins, Y.K. ( 2008). So far from the bamboo grove. New York: HarperCollins.


10 Motivators to Promote Playful Learning

My four-year-old granddaughter Helena and I are alternating skipping and walking on a warm, sunny June day on the sidewalks of Winchester, Virginia. We stop to look closely at a parade of ants marching on the sidewalk and listen to a redbird singing in an oak tree.
Helena is full of questions. Why aren’t mushrooms green like plants? Why do worms stay under the ground? Suddenly she stops, looks up at me and says: “I’m never going to school!” When I ask her why, she says, “Because my brother [in second grade] comes home and it’s homework every day.”
“What will you do if you don’t go to school?” I ask.
In response, Helena spreads her arms out wide and skips around me, shouting again and again, “Play! I’ll play!”
The sorry state of play
Helena, like all young children who play to learn, use their five senses, raise questions that stimulate their imagination, and continually take risks to better understand their environment. However, in kindergartens today, time for play as a way of learning has decreased over the last two decades in favor of explicit instruction on literacy. The ripple effect across the upper elementary and middle grades is profound.
Early childhood expert Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups, points out that during the era of the Common Core State Standards, kindergarten education has changed, resulting in some educators viewing kindergarten as the new first grade.
Instead of improving reading instruction in middle and high school to raise our standing on international and state tests, those educators believe that by teaching much younger children reading skills, their scores will soar in later grades.
As Christakis notes in a recent article in The Atlantic, even preschool programs have reduced time for play in favor of explicit instruction in reading and math. Instead of the social interactions and explorations that are a hallmark of play in early education, in many preschool settings young children sit in seats and complete worksheets that drill phonics and sight words. Gone are the easels, gone are the water and sand tables, and gone are the dress-up centers for pretend play.
What we risk when we eliminate play
Yet, imaginative play and the exploration of concepts (such as why snakes slither and how seeds germinate) have cognitive and emotional benefits to young children that develop their creativity, abstract thinking, imagination, and problem solving abilities.
At the same time, play develops children’s self-confidence, their ability to cooperate, share, and listen to one another’s ideas. With reductions in time for play as a way of learning in favor of “skill and drill,” I fear young children won’t realize the cognitive and emotional benefits of play, which will ultimately affect their ability to imagine, innovate and problem solve in the middle grades and high school.
Play is important at every development stage
Some of the greatest educational researchers and philosophers—John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky, and Jean Piaget—promote play as important for social development, learning, and bridging children’s imagination to reality. Moreover, as far back as 346 B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Plato wrote in Laws that play is a child’s preparation for a future career.
Friedrich Froebel, the German educator who developed kindergarten for boys and girls, agreed with Plato when he explained that a man’s later life has its roots in childhood play (The Education of Man, 1887). For me, children of all ages, not just preschoolers, explore and learn about their world, through play.
To prepare students for college, career, and a meaningful and productive adult life, teachers need to incorporate playful learning that engages and motivates elementary, middle, and high school students. Integrating playful learning into core subjects such as reading, writing, math, science, and social studies can ramp up students’ academic achievement while making learning relevant to their lives.
Teachers in the middle grades are generally not a position to address the issues of play in preschool and elementary. But they can integrate what I call the “Big 10 Student Motivators.” These strategies encourage playful learning, can boost students’ innovative thinking and problem-solving skills, and at the same time engage students in reading, writing, researching, discussing, and analyzing materials in all subjects.
The Big Ten Student Motivators:
Providing choice in independent reading, writing topics, and projects makes students feel invested in tasks and develops their responsibility and independence in learning.
Collaborating to learn invites students to work in pairs and small groups, share ideas, value diverse thinking, and become active listeners who respect one another thinking. Collaboration enables students to develop open-ended discussion questions, plan and execute projects, study for tests, evaluate websites and other sources, have literary conversations, and pool research. And, of course, collaboration invites play.
Integrating meaningful talk makes learning social for a communicating generation in which Face Time, Twitter, and texting are commonplace. Meaningful talk can happen with partners, small groups and the whole class. During student-led talk, teachers become facilitators who enter a discussion to periodically summarize points or jump-start a stalled conversation by posing a question.
Problem solving asks students to be generative thinkers, coming up with a variety of possible solutions to school and community problems and problems related to topics they’re studying. For example, a fifth grade unit on friendship transforms into problem solving when students self-select and read a variety of texts and then collaborate in small group to compose a pamphlet on what makes friendships work and what derails them. Moreover, choice enables students to select materials from which they know they can learn.
Inquiry learning invites students to ask the questions they’ll discuss and/or research for a topic, project, or unit of study. Inquiry learning is social because it requires students to collaborate and support one another. By sharing ideas, they learn to value the diverse thinking of peers. During an inquiry study, students gain control over their learning, develop opinions on topics, and gain a fluency and flexibility in analytical thinking.
Encouraging risk taking creates an environment in which students feel comfortable making mistakes and even failing. Students who can take risks without fear of criticism from their teacher and peers can become better problem solvers and creative thinkers. In a comfortable and safe space, they can learn from their mistakes.
Unlocking creativity occurs when students are put into a situation in which they can think about and create ideas in their own unique ways. Students who think creatively have multiple ways to solve a problem, or interpret a story, painting, or movie. At school student-centered approaches to learning such as collaboration, inquiry, and student-led discussions encourage creative and innovative thinking.
Developing empathy means that students can step into the shoes of others, understand life as they do, empathize with their problems, and share their joys. Social interactions, collaborations, and reading about and watching videos and movies about other cultures and ways of life other than their own develop and expand students’ ability to empathize. In a student-centered, culturally diverse classroom, empathy leads to understanding, respecting cultural differences, and developing social responsibility.
Teacher-student negotiating fosters independence in learning as students and teachers become co-decision makers for setting deadline dates and suggesting projects, test formats, test questions, and the amount of assigned homework.
Going out for recess, enjoying time to play outside,recharges elementary and middle school students’ learning batteries so they can concentrate. Yet many elementary and middle schools have reduced or eliminated recess in favor of more time for reading, writing, and math. In addition, five-minute brain breaks should occur after students have focused deeply for thirty minutes. Students can stretch, move around, chat with friends, and use their renewed energy to concentrate again.
Some playful closing thoughts
The Big 10 Student Motivators are skills for the 21st century and beyond—skills valued and used by government agencies, corporations, universities, small businesses, and school districts that depend on members to know how to collaborate as they solve problems, develop policy, generate an abundance of ideas, and respond to issues and events.
Learning begins with play. If students of today are to become the innovators and problem solvers of tomorrow, then schools need to respond to the call of play in all grades.