Category: Education Topics

Active Learning, Active Engagement!

By Laura Robb and Evan Robb

Get your students out of their desks and learning by doing. Organize students into collaborative groups of three to five and encourage meaningful talk. Limit teacher talk to twelve to fifteen minutes in a 45-minute class. Use the rest of your class time for actively engaging students in learning. Gordon Wells said in The Meaning Makers (Heinemann, 1986) that all learning is the guided reinvention of knowledge. The teacher creates situations where students, through discussions, reading, writing, and observing come to understand information.


Students love to talk. They do it well. And it’s a great way for them to enlarge vocabulary, observe the thinking of peers, and clarify ideas. Here are some ways to involve students in paired and small group discussions.

Turn and Talk. Ask students to turn to their partner and discuss a question, word, project, video, book talk. This is a simple, tried and true way to involve students in meaningful talk. Remember to ask partners to share with the class.

Learning Buddies. Invite students to discuss a short text, a book, video, blog, wiki, or article. Help students set guidelines for their discussions.

Peer Revise and Edit. Organize students into partners or small groups and have them read each other’s drafts. Using a rubric or writing criteria, partners can suggest ways to improve the content, mechanics, and usage.

Study Buddies. Most middle grade and middle school students don’t study because they are unsure how to study. This type of review asks students to think about what they’re read, viewed on line, learned, and their written notes. Set aside one to two class periods and provide pairs with suggestions for studying. Students can:

Create high level questions they believe will be on the test. Show them that words like why, how, evaluate, compare, contrast, lead to questions that have more than one answer. Good questions always have more than one answer and use text details and/or inferences as support for answers.

360 Degree Math Partnerships. Put whiteboards all around your classroom. Have students solve math problems at the board. Stand in the middle of the classroom and observe students. Immediately offer support to students who “don’t get it.” You can also have students work together so that the one who understands can show how to think through the problem to the student who requires help. This gets students doing math during class and allows the teacher to spot problems immediately and offer support.

Organize Cross-Grade Projects. Develop projects with teachers on your team and/or with students in lower grades. Students can work together in different classrooms and in the library. Try some of these suggestions:

  • Older students become reading buddies to younger students. Once a week, set aside time for students to read together and discuss their books.
  • Older students listen to younger students read their writing and provide feedback on content.
  • Peer partners can design and film a video.
  • Peer partners can create a website or blog and continually update it.

Let Students Teach Each Other. As a teacher when you have to teach, you immerse yourself in a topic so deeply that you can think, read, speak, and write about it with ease. The same holds true for your students. The pyramid suggests that teaching results in the most retention of a topic. Here are ways that students can teach one another:

  • Use Jigsaw. Give pairs or small groups sections of texts to discuss and then teach to the group. Texts can be magazine articles, online pieces, sections from a content textbook or chapters from informational texts and literature.
  • Organize Panel Presentations. Have small groups become experts on a topic and plan a panel presentation that teaches the class.
  • Develop Teaching Blogs. Organize students into groups and give each group part of a topic to study. For example, for human rights, one group canexplainthis concept according to the United Nations, other countries, and interviews that students conduct; another group can give examples of violations of human rights and how each one was handled; a third group can study human rights from an historical perspective; a fourth group can delve into people who advocated for human rights, what motivated them, and how they changed events. Using a blog, students can teach one another by posting findings and inviting other groups to respond.
  • Teach Younger Students. Challenge older students to develop active-learning lessons on making inferences, solving equations, conducting an experiment, etc. To teach these lessons to younger students means older students must have a deep understanding of their topic.
  • Peer Book Conferences. Once students have conferred about a book with their teacher, ask them to pair-up and confer about a book with a partner. Partners document peer book conferences and turn their write-ups into the teacher. See form at the end of the newsletter.


The Common Core asks teachers to involve students in speaking and listening activities. Here are some suggestions that work:

  • Present monthly book talks and develop standards for presenters and listeners.
  • Argue for a claim in a speech in addition to writing essays.
  • Write and perform a readers theater script based on a specific text.
  • Conduct interviews in front of the class. Interviews can be between characters from a book or to explore a student’s expertise on a topic.
  • Write and perform a dramatic monologue. Students’ monologues can be based on an historical figure, a famous scientist or mathematician, or a character from a book.


Reading and writing workshops are active learning teaching models. A read aloud and mini-lesson open workshop. Students spend most of class time reading books they choose and writing about topics they choose and care about. The teacher makes the rounds and holds brief conferences with students, leading her to figuring out which students require longer conferences; she also organizes student partnerships so students can confer with and support each another.



Laura shares ideas to help make classrooms more engaging, student focused, and dynamic.  Student engagement coupled with purposeful learning can not only increase student learning but it also can make learning more enjoyable for student and teacher.  This blog contains great Monday morning strategies as you the teacher work to increase student engagement in a purposeful strategic way! I hope your principal is an encourager of trying new strategies to increase student engagement! Overly compliant classrooms devoid of conversation, engagement, collaboration and communication need to be part of our past.

My Scholastic Blogs

Some Thoughts on Intervention

Principals can create a climate where teachers value interventions and make them part of their teaching plans.  Here are some tips for helping teachers understand that interventions matter.

  • Have teachers discuss the kinds of interventions they use at team and depart meetings.
  • Focus some of your walkthroughs on observing the teacher circulating among students with a clipboard in hand and completing on-the-spot repairs or scheduling an exploratory conference.
  • Invite teachers to share a successful intervention with colleagues at a faculty meeting.
  • Organize professional book study groups that focus on interventions; join a group so you model your investment. Give teachers choice of books and purchase them using school funds.
  • Invite teachers to share the Tier 1 instructional practices that are working in their classrooms.
  • Invite teachers to share students’ work that shows progress because of interventions.

Because the classroom teacher is the key to helping a diverse group of learners improve, it’s important to help teachers enlarge their knowledge of how to intervene and also to celebrate their success with a note from you!

Two Book Suggestions for Professional Study Groups

  • RTI From All Sides: What Every Teacher Needs to Know, K-8, by Mary Howard, Heinemann,  2009
  • The Reading Intervention Toolkit by Laura Robb, 4 to 8, Shell Education, 2016

Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of:

The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.

Follow Evan Robb on Twitter: @ERobbPrincipal

Sign up for The Daily Robb Review—it’s free!


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.