The power of a mistake maker

Last fall my family took the mini-cruise from Copenhagen to Oslo and back.  This trip was all about our then seven year old twins and we basically spent the entire trip in the children’s section and on the childrens’ activities schedule.  The cruise line cleverly had created a story  with four main characters that guided all of the activities.  You could also purchase merchandise of these characters.  (Yes, we were those kind of parents who did buy the character stuffed animals.) One of the characters was a wizard who could never get his spells right.  His magical attempts always backfired with hilarious results.  I watched as my shy kids after hearing one of the wizard’s stories decided that they could try to make a balloon sword because they thought they could do better than the wizard had.  I later saw them running all over the ship as part of the kids’ scavenger hunt and reading difficult clues, even though they weren’t very confident readers yet.  My son told me, “I can try to read it because if I mess up, I’ll only be like the wizard and I like him.”

Boom.  I had an epiphany.  They were more willing to try things that were new or hard for them because somebody had already made a mistake and made mistake making ok.  Hmmm.  How to translate this into the classroom? I always tell my students that mistakes are welcome but as humans we have an innate need to succeed and do things in a way that we can be proud of.  How can I translate that pride not into the outcome but instead a pride in the journey of learning that might involve mistakes?

power-of-mistakesI always focus on praising the process and not the outcome but I decided to introduce a mistake maker into my classroom.  I bought an extra wizard stuffed toy on the cruise and brought him to my class.  I introduced him to the class and told him that this wizard was there to help our class but that he might make some mistakes.  We had a class discussion about welcoming him to the group and what we would do if he or anyone made a mistake in learning.  I then let him (the wizard)  try to sound out and spell some of our target words for the day.  Wouldn’t you know it; he made a few mistakes but he kept trying.  I made sure to make his responses to his mistakes humorous.  The kids were laughing and shouting out encouragement for him to try again.

I kept the same format up for a week and quickly saw my students in the subjects I had modelled mistakes in … willing to make mistakes.  If they realized that they had made a mistake they generally laughed about it and tried again immediately.  They often wanted to share their mistakes with the whole class at the end of the day.


Here he is counting Danish coins as a challenge for my kids.

I use the wizard all of the time now.  Any character you create will work.  I suggest letting them model common mistakes your students make or will make and then letting them work through those mistakes.  I eventually let the wizard model behavioral mistakes or friendship mistakes to aid my students in their social learning.  It is also nice that they feel they can educate the character about the right thing to do.  This makes every student in your class an expert and that may be a new role for some kids.  They love finally getting to take that role on.

Give your students the chance to as Ms. Frizzle would say, “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.” They may be more willing to do it if a kind but hapless stuffed toy models mistake making for them.

Little Vikings




What do your students need? Back to School Management Tip



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I adore pinterest for classroom arrangements and decorations.  One year, I diligently searched and figured out how to make an enormous Chicka Chicka Boom Boom Tree.  Another year I decorated in Truffula trees and Dr. Suess themes.  My fellow teachers and parents raved about the room but I eventually began to ask the question of what the students actually thought of their classroom.  Their answers surprised me and changed the way I both set up my classroom and ran it for the rest of the year.

If I just asked, “Do you like this room?” They answered, ” Yes” until one brave soul said, “It is really pretty but we didn’t make it so it doesn’t feel like our classroom.”  That is a huge statement.  I realized that even though I had strived to have a student centered classroom, I had made a beautiful-to-the-adult-eye classroom and not necessarily what my students needed.

To change the classroom, I started asking lots of questions.  “Do you like it when the walls have lots of colors?  How do you like the lights in the classroom; should we use the light from the windows only or the overhead lights? What kind of areas should we have in our classroom?”  This opened up a whole new world of information to me.  My students didn’t all have the same opinions so we would survey them and then talk about the results.  How can we make these preferences work for everyone?

Getting to know me learning edition (2)

Examples of questions to survey your students on.

What ended up happening was that the class as a whole began to develop empathy and understanding for the different preferences or needs that were in the classroom.  We also began to mix up our day, using the light from the windows for writer’s workshop and listening to background music while we did math.  It also made the discussion of how to make our classroom community the best that it could be a regular part of our classroom culture.  Kids felt free to talk about things that bothered them and then the other students would work on solutions for them.

My room may not look as pinterest ready now, though sometimes the students hit on an idea that we can go all out for, but I’ve gained a caring, peaceful class culture that I would never change.  Parents often tell me that their students feel safe and cared for by both me and their peers.  I couldn’t ask for a better learning environment than that.

You can ask your students a question a day or you can take some class sessions and let them survey their peers.  This is a freebie that lets kids tell you about their learning preferences.  It also includes some follow up activities to let them tally the results of the class as a whole and then form class agreements based on that information.  Just click on the picture below.

Back to School

Little Vikings

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Fair vs. Equal

If there are any words I’ve come to dread as a parent or a teacher, “It’s not fair!” is the phrase I dread the most.  It is an extremely hard phrase to reason with.  My husband tells me that when he was a child, he and his brother used to put their drinks side by side every night so they could guarantee that they both had gotten the exact same amount of juice as the other.  My kids try to do the same with popcorn and my students try it with seemingly everything.

The funny thing about these two words is that even though kids (and sometimes school systems) treat them like synonyms; they are not.

What is equal? 

As humans we want to make sure that we are getting everything that we are entitled to.  This sometimes means that if we see someone getting “more” than us, we want to remedy that situation by either getting more ourselves or bringing them down to our level.  In the classroom this pops up with kids when you differentiate work, give small group teacher time, or basically any time that kids can see a discrepancy between their experience and another’s experience.  No classroom functions well if every student gets exactly the same everything.  It doesn’t work because their needs are more varied than making everything equal can account for.

What is fair? 

When I talk to kids, I often make an analogy about a giraffe and a caterpillar.  In this scenario both the giraffe and the caterpillar live in the same place and they both eat leaves.  The ruler of the town decided that there should be a set number of leaves for each animal, so that the town doesn’t run out of leaves.  The ruler decides to divide the leaves equally and gives the caterpillar and the giraffe the same amount of leaves.  I then stop and ask, “Is this fair?”

The kids invariably shout, “NO!” They recognize the innately different needs in terms of amount of leaves between a giraffe and a caterpillar.  I then set them brainstorming how else the leaves could be divided if dividing them equally isn’t fair.  There are usually lots of discussions about this and quite often I’ve had kids decide to get paper or whiteboards to make diagrams  In the end we always come to a solution that takes into account that a giraffe needs more leaves than a caterpillar does to survive.  Also if a caterpillar has too many leaves they could get sick or go to waste.  We then try to sum up our ideas about fair and equal.  Sometimes we’ve said that fair doesn’t mean equal and other times we’ve said that fair is giving each person what they need.  

fair vs equal

When we’ve made our own definition of fair, we bring it back to the classroom.  So is it a good idea to make sure that we always do exactly the same thing for every person?  They now quickly point out some of the different needs they may have or others may have.  I then remind them of the definition that “fair is giving each person what they need”.  I then give them opportunity to think of times in the classroom that things might be different for different people but, everyone is getting what they need.

I have this discussion early in the year, every year and it works.  Since I’ve started using it, I’ve noticed that my students are more aware of their own needs and the needs of others.  I also display a poster that either uses their definition of fair that year or my standard definition.  I’ve included three posters that you can use with your class.  Just click on the image and it will send you to my tpt store.

Fair is not equal

Click on the picture to download.

Little Vikings




Who Goes First?

Every year I have at least one student who is obsessed with being first (in games, in line, first to be done with assignments, etc.) and this always seems to trickle down to the rest of the class.  8

My literacy and math times rely on stations or centers so I need students to be independent.  Every year I slowly introduce the behaviors expected while working in the centers and we roleplay both what appropriate and inappropriate behavior might look like.  This year, there were a lot of very tense discussions between students about who would go first in centers that involved a game.  Eventually, based on my students’ suggestions, I made a “Who Goes First?” box.  At the beginning of the day I drew out a card and whoever in the group met the details of the card, they would go first.

Those tense discussions?  They became non-existent.  It worked so well that it spread to other classrooms.  I even had my co-teacher steal my box so she could use it when I wasn’t teaching.  The key was that there were so many possibilities that it was always up for grabs who would be first that day.  (Examples include: the person with the longest thumb, the person with the shortest first name, the person who has a cat at home, the youngest, etc.)

who goes first

You can pick it up as a flash freebie  for the next few days in my tpt store and see your students’ tense discussions drop dramatically.  🙂

Little Vikings



Everyone reads and no one has self-diagnosed dyslexia

My son diagnosed himself with dyslexia this past week.  It came out at bedtime when we were reading to him and he confided in us that he doesn’t always get the words right. In fact, he was reading in front of the class for a Reader’s Theater project and he thought his peers might have laughed at his reading.  We hugged him and promised that he didn’t have dyslexia but that we would help him more at home.

As a teacher of early readers, my heart sank.  This is what we work so hard to keep kids from feeling and it is why I’ve tried a radically different approach to my guided reading lessons.  I’ve been opposed to Round Robin reading where each kid takes turns reading for a long time but often struggled to find other methodologies to hear early readers in their decoding.  I tried to have individual conferences and couldn’t find the time. Choral reading is good for early readers until someone starts decoding faster than everyone else and gets bored.  Shared reading and reciprocal reading is still good for comprehension strategies but how do I help early readers practice decoding skills on their own and give them feedback to learn from their mistakes? I decided to try something stupid.guided reading differentiation

Have them all read out loud at the same time but not together, each at their own pace.  So now I pull a group over and we talk about the book and set the stage for the phonics or comprehension strategy we will work on.  We usually take a picture walk together and make predictions and then they open their books and all read to themselves out loud.  The weird thing is … this works beautifully.  They all go at their own pace and it is oddly easy to listen to 6 different readings at the same time because it is easy to cue into fluency mistakes or the sound of a kid’s voice when they are confused.  So each kid ends up getting individual reading and conferencing for every book but in a fraction of the time.

I sometimes have kids reading the same book to themselves and at other times each will be reading a different book.  The kids love it and our running records data shows that the kids have jumped in their reading levels- even though everything else we do is the same as other years.  Other teachers have tried it too and we all love it. To paraphrase Sam I am from Green Eggs and Ham, “Try it! Try it! And you may like it.”Little Vikings


Recess the school nemesis

Kids love recess… well at least most of them do.  Recess is an inherently tricky time for anyone who struggles with making friends or has social issues.  All kids have break times that are less than ideal and it can be a taxing part of the teacher’s job to help them navigate these important social issues.  As a parent, I know that at the end of the day I hear about what happened on the playground and not the amazing math lesson that the teacher planned.  (How unfair right?  Why can’t kids go home and explain in detail how awesome their teacher is? ) break time book

At our school we wanted kids to start developing the social problem skills to navigate the ups and downs and break times.  We also wanted documentation over time about how breaks were going for kids so we could pick up negative trends early. Also, it helps to have lots of documentation of positive breaks for parents that are worried about their child’s transition, friends, etc.  We created a recess book, a reflection journal truly, to help kids think about who they played with, where they were, how it went, how it could be better next time, or to make a plan for a great break.  recess reflection

I have to report that it works.  It does take some class time to do on a fairly regular basis, but it cuts down on teacher documentation.  It also lets the kids’ own words speak for themselves which is probably much more powerful than a teacher’s interpretation of events.  Try it – we highly recommend it.  you can get it in my tpt store and it is 50% off for a week.

Little Vikings


Freebie Student Reflections

This is a rant: Why is it when you google “student reflection sheets” the only hits you get are for behavior?  Is that truly the only thing we want kids to reflect on in school? End rant.

I believe strongly that kids need to have a say in their own learning, as well as, the classroom set-up of the place where they spend most of their day for nine months.  I want students to become active participants in forming a classroom that is fair, meets their needs and the needs of others, and feels like the kind of place that you want to be.Lower Primary Student Reflection

There are so many ways to do this.  I’m a big, big fan of Positive Discipline’s classroom meetings and the PYP’s learner centered environment, but I have to say that I’m concerned if the only times we stop to get children’s feedback is when we are disappointed in their behavior.  Perhaps our not listening to all of their other concerns might even increase the need for behavior reflections?

compass points reflection

I made these to try and create a place for students to take some time to stop and reflect about all parts of their school day and how they feel about them.  The results in anonymous form might come up in classroom meetings where we as a group try to problem solve how we can make school better for everyone.  Everyone’s voice matters and I want to create a classroom where every person’s voice is heard.How I feel about school

Little Vikings