Author Archives: Kenneth McKee

Five More Strategies to Get Students Moving

A year ago, I wrote I my most popular post yet “Five Movement Strategies in the High School Classroom.” Since that time, an adapted version of the post has been featured on TeachThought, and some teachers in my district and I were interviewed for an Education Update piece. It seems that many educators are dedicating themselves to meet the need for movement to enhance learning.

In the last year, the connection between movement and learning has become even clearer. There was the amazing Alexis Wiggins post that showed that students sat for nearly 90% of their class time and that all that sitting was actually exhausting. Donna Wilson’s Edutopia post described how movement increases oxygen flow to the brain (which enhances learning), as well as altering neurotransmitters and the structure of the brain. The idea of brain breaks has increased, especially with the rise of GoNoodle in elementary grades (for some ideas for brain breaks with high school students, check out my colleague, Kathy Bonyun’s page).

Recently, I was listening to Dr Michael Trayford’s Train your Brain podcast, when I learned about an organism called the sea squirt. The sea squirt is a creature that moves through the ocean until it attaches itself to a rock. At that point, it never moves again, and, literally digests its own brain and spinal cord. Just think about how this relates to learning in humans. Although our physiology would not allow digestion of the brain from lack of movement, we certainly lose neural connections from lack of movement. Our brains have evolved to relate movement and learning.

With all that said, people have been asking me for more movement ideas, so without further ado, here are five more strategies to get students moving.

  1. Four Corners

This is a simple way to have students move while crafting arguments. Ask your students a question and provide four choices for responses.I find that the best questions do not have a discernible “right” answer. Each response is posted in a corner of the room.  Ask students to move to the corner that correlates with their response. Then , I often have students work in their “corner group” to write an argument justifying their choice. Once students have crafted an argument, we have an informal debate.  Sometimes after all students have presented their arguments, I allow them to switch corners if their ideas have been influenced by other teams’ arguments.

Don’t worry about it always being four choices. I often use “three corners” as well. For example, when students had trouble determining whether a propaganda technique is an example of pathos, ethos, or logos, I asked them to use Three Corners to build an argument. Another example is an upcoming LDC earth science lesson, where students must suggest which alternative energy source is the best investment for our state: solar, wind, or geothermal.

2. Carousel Brainstorming

Carousel brainstorming is a little like the gallery walk strategy I discussed in my last movement post. The difference is students are asked to generate ideas at a piece of chart paper (or whiteboard, etc.). After a certain amount of time, I ask student groups to rotate to the next chart paper. Each group must then add new ideas to the previous group’s work. For example, I recently taught a word study lesson where I asked three groups of students to generate words that were morphologically related to the words concussiondecline, and sensitivity, all vocabulary from a recent Newsela article they were going to read.  Each group generated words for about three minutes before moving to the next chart to add new ideas to other groups’ lists.

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After rotating through all three charts, they checked off words that they believed related to the meanings of the morphemes con, de, and sens.  Then, students looked for the word patterns in their reading using Newsela’s highlighting feature.


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3. Take a Stand

Take a Stand is a great first step for those experimenting with more movement in their classrooms. It’s pretty simple. The teacher asks a yes-or-no question to a group of students. For instance, I will often begin a social studies lesson with a compelling question, like “Were the Dark Ages really that dark?,” or “Are freedom songs still necessary in our time?” Students who believe the answer is “yes” will stand up. It is a great strategy for polling the room or assessing background knowledge. It can also easily integrate movement into the traditional anticipation guide strategy. Class discussion could center around asking students why they stood or stayed seated for the question.

4. Scavenger Hunts

Who doesn’t love a scavenger hunt? You can either (1) create different locations in the room to gather information, or (2) make it a “true” scavenger hunt by leaving a string of clues that tie together in a pre-determined sequence. For option 1, consider using QR codes that link to texts, videos, maps, and charts that support students learning the content.


For the 2nd option, create a string of clues. Here are two examples from brilliant teachers I work with. One math teacher creates cards with solutions on the front and problems on the inside. Students must solve the problem and then search for the solution on other cards to determine their next location in the sequence!

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An amazing biology teacher created a task where students analyze a DNA sequence for transcription, and then they must find they correct sequence using the codons for transcription. There are endless possibilities for this.


5. Trading Cards

Trading cards is a vocabulary strategy that works well with new vocabulary words. Each student is assigned one word. On an index card, the student writes the word and a definition on one side; then he or she draws a picture that correlates with the meaning of the word on the other side of the card. Students make two lines (an A line and a B line). In the line, they should be directly facing a student in the other line. Each student in Line A goes first teaching the student they are facing the definition of the word and explaining their picture. Then, Line B goes. Here is the neat part: I then ask students to trade cards, and I have Line A physically shift one person to the right. Each student is now responsible for teaching the word  that he or she just learned from the original partner. I really enjoy this strategy because it places the accountability of learning the words on students because they then have to teach each word to their classmates. One caveat for using this strategy is that you will need to create multiple groups of lines in larger classes. I tried to create two long lines with a class of 34, and students couldn’t hear one another or me when I asked the lines to shift.

I hope that these suggestions will provide you with some ways to infuse more movement into your classroom. If you are looking for more ideas, check out my original movement post.


Observing Classes Like James Bond

A funny thing happened a few months ago. I had arranged to take a new math teacher from one school to observe a math teacher at another school where I coach. I offered to drive her, and, unfortunately we arrived to the classroom about ten minutes into the lesson. We obviously drew attention to ourselves as we entered the room.  What was strange was that one student kept looking over at me and talking to his friends. I’ll admit it. It made me a little self-conscious. Eventually, he passed a note to the teacher, who passed it to me.

It read:



Apparently, the student thought I resembled Daniel Craig of 007 fame. If only I was that cool. Although flattering, I realized that I had made some mistakes as an observer that altered the learning environment for both the teacher and the students.

Whether you are an administrator, instructional coach, teacher, or college student visiting a class, here are some strategies you can use as an observer (or secret agent!) to keep from disrupting the learning environment.

Show up before class begins.

That was the big problem with this incident. We all know that any time a visitor enters the doorway of a classroom, students are going to direct their attention to him or her, if only briefly. It’s better to be in the room before class starts. A bonus: as an observer, you will know better about what the lesson is about, especially if the teacher shares the learning targets and an agenda.

Greet students at the door.

Along with being there early, I suggest standing outside the door while students enter the room. This helps prepare them mentally and emotionally for a visitor being present. Smile and say hello at least. Engage in more conversation if you feel comfortable. Chat with the teacher as well, so students can see you as an ally to the teacher, rather than a detached, or worse, threatening presence in the room.

Ask the teacher to briefly introduce you early in the lesson.

Why? It has been my experience that many class environments will be influenced in one of two ways if I am not introduced. (1) They become exceptionally quiet, probably because they are not sure of why I’m there. (2) The become rowdy because they want to have my attention. A brief introduction usually heads off either of these outcomes.

If possible, ask the teacher to tell you what level of interaction with students is appropriate.

Personally, I like to ask students a few questions about their class activities and what they are learning. Some teachers want me to move around the room to write down what students are saying, so they can reflect on their learning. Others want me sit in the back of the room to see as much of the class as possible, so I can note how many students engage in certain behaviors. It is best to ask the teacher how you should interact with students before you visit. That way you can find out where his or her comfort level lies as well as what he or she believes is appropriate for the lesson’s activities.

If you cannot stay for the whole class period, find a a good time to slip out.

Look for a time to leave that will not draw attention to you. I often choose to leave during a transition in activities or when students are working independently on a task. That way, I can reduce the odds that my exit will become a distraction to the learning process.


Observing classes without altering the class environment can be tricky, but following some of these simple rules can reduce the incidences of drawing attention away from the lesson and towards which celebrity the observer may or may not look like.

PS: I don’t think I look anything like Daniel Craig, but many students say I look like actor Mark Pellegrino (or they say I look like Lucifer from Supernatural — which kind of weirds me out). I know him as Jacob from the television show Lost. And, I have to say, I really DO look like him.

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Why Your Lessons Should Start Strong and Finish Strong

Have you ever watched a movie, and when asked to describe it to a friend, you can easily recall the beginning and ending? However, the details in the middle seem a bit muddled. Well, this is actually a natural phenomenon of how the brain works called the primacy-recency effect.

Check out the following diagram.


I borrowed this image from a Wikipedia page about the primacy-recency effect. It illustrates how people recalled words they were asked to memorize from a list.  Generally , they could recall more words at the beginning and end of the list, but they struggled to recall the middle set of words.

How does this apply to the classroom? Well, students are most likely to remember what happens at the beginning and end of the class. If you are like me, this can be incredibly frustrating as a teacher because most of the “meat” of our lessons occurs in the middle.

So what are we to do? Knowing this information can help us plan for better student understanding and long-term knowledge.

At the beginning of a lesson, we can:

  • Clearly state the learning targets
  • Discuss the academic language and content vocabulary necessary for the lesson.
  • Tie new concepts to students prior knowledge
  • Engage students early on by utilizing classroom talk, writing, video, an experiment, or pictures related to concepts.

The primacy-recency effect as demonstrates how important closure activities are. Two reasons why closure is often not part of a lesson are planning and pacing. We must be vigilant in determining how students can tap into the previous learning from the middle of the lesson for closure of the lesson. Closure is also a type of formative assessment. Here are some easy ways to work toward closure:

  • Consider activities that allow you to formatively assess students by making them tap into the lesson’s concepts. Formative assessment makes student understandings visible, so think about what students can say, write, or do at the end of the lesson.
  • Have a quick list of writing to learn activities that you can pull from, if you are struggling to plan a closure activity, here is link to some easy-to-implement ideas.
  • When you only have those few minutes before the dismissal bell, have students quickly talk about the lesson. You can easily do a turn-and-talk (click here to see how to make these effective) or have a no-prep game ready (such as one of the PowerPoint games).
  • Have a discussion about the learning targets. Have students self-assess their understanding on a scale of 1 to 5, and ask them to write why they gave themselves that rating.

What are some of your most effective opening and closing activities for supercharging student learning in your own teaching? Share ideas in the comments.

7 Reasons to Love Newsela

One of my go-to tools for finding interesting informational texts is Newsela, and it has taken my district by storm. What’s so great about Newsela?

  1. Adaptation of Lexile Level

Lexile AdapterThe biggest selling point for Newsela is that it adapts the text complexity of recent news stories to five different Lexile levels. Oftentimes the lowest Lexile will correlate with around a 3rd grade reading level, while the highest (generally the original article) will be about a 12th grade reading level. These various levels allow for scaffolding during close reading (by providing students access to easier text to clarify understanding of more difficult text), student self-selection of reading level, and the potential of adapting texts inconspicuously for different reading groups. Newsela helps us meet the maxim of “differentiation with dignity.”

2. Engaging and Recent Stories

Newsela posts new stories the day after they are in print in their original publications. Is there a story captivating the nation? There is a good chance you will find it on Newsela the next day. The stories come from reputable sources as well. Just a cursory glance today showed me articles from Scientific American, The Seattle Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Herchinger Report.

Latest news

3. Content for Most Disciplines

Here is a list of categories you can search on the menu bar. War & Peace. Science. Kids. Money. Law. Health. Arts. Sports.

There is a nice variety. I have seen teachers artfully use Newsela in English language arts, biology, earth science, chorus, dance, financial math, and Spanish. Yes, Spanish! That brings me to my next point.

4. Articles Available in Spanish

A new feature of Newsela is that some articles are available in Spanish. In addition, the reading level of each article can be adapted in Spanish. This option not only benefits native Spanish-speaking students as a form of scaffolding, but it also provides adjustable content reading for the Spanish content area.

5. CCSS-Aligned Assessments

sample quizMost articles also feature a multiple-choice quiz that is aligned to the CCSS Reading Information Standards. There is also a writing component. English language arts teachers, especially, can choose articles by standards that they would like to measure in formative assessments. If your school opts for the Pro version, you can track student performance over time, but for those using the free version, printed quizzes could still give you information. One caveat here. Newsela does not teach these skills; that is the job of the teacher. But, Newsela does offer some cool tools to help you teach comprehension. Check out Point 6.

6. Digital Highlighting and Annotation

The teacher and students can highlight text on the free version of Newsela. They can also have two-way annotation conversations. These are useful tools for helping students monitor comprehension as they read or for having them read for a purpose aligned with your lesson’s learning targets.

Ann and highlight

7. Text Sets

You can search for text sets (pre-compiled sets of articles related to a unifying topic). English teachers love the Text Sets for Literature, which allows them to pair informational texts with canonical texts in order explore novels’ themes in a modern, real-world context. Examples of novel-themed text sets include The Giver, Of Mice and Men, and Macbeth. There are also text sets related to other content areas. Some example text sets include “Animal Einsteins” and “Bringing an End to Bullying” (awesome way for a counselor to use Newsela!).

If you haven’t used Newsela before, I encourage you to start exploring their site today. If you are already a Newsela user, I’d enjoy hearing what you love about Newsela in the comments.

Are We Still Teaching Like Miss Caroline?

In anticipation of reading the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, I have been re-reading her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

If you are an educator, I highly recommend picking up To Kill a Mockingbird to read Chapter 2. Lee provides a phenomenal satire of the disconnection between school practices and students’ real lives.  The events in the chapter clearly illustrates the importance of learning about students’ home lives and incorporating their background knowledge into the classroom.

The chapter describes the experiences of the main character, Scout, on her first day of the first grade.

The scene opens with Scout’s teacher, Miss Caroline, reading a long fictional story about cats to the disengaged children of predominately working class parents. She seems oblivious or uncaring about their lack of engagement.  Here is an excerpt.

“By the time  Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms. Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. Miss Caroline came to the end of the story and said, “Oh,¯ my, wasn’t that nice?”

Now, of course, this is the first day of school, so maybe Miss Caroline doesn’t know enough about her students yet to choose engaging reading. However, it seems that she is not assessing their interests to choose better materials in the future.


Later in the chapter, Miss Caroline chastises Scout when she realizes that Scout can already read.  Miss Caroline tells Scout to tell her father to no longer teach Scout reading and that she will try to undo the damage he has caused.  Scout later becomes bored with Miss Caroline’s flashcard lecture, so she writes a letter to her friend Dill.  Miss Caroline becomes enraged that Scout can write in cursive and tells her that she is only allowed to write in print until she “learns” cursive in third grade.

Miss Caroline’s disapproval of Atticus teaching Scout how to read is rooted in a desire to maintain power.  She could have reacted in a number or ways. She could have validated Scout’s status as a reader and writer. She could have enlisted Scout as helper to other students. She could have allowed Scout to self-select reading materials. She could have found more rigorous tasks for Scout. What she did though was resort to the “one-size-fits-all” instruction she believed was best.

Finally, Scout gets in trouble when Miss Caroline becomes upset with a very poor student named Walter Cunningham.  Walter has not brought his lunch, and Miss Caroline tries to force him to take money to buy a lunch, asking that he pay her back the next day.  Walter refuses to take the money.  Scout speaks up that Walter cannot pay her back because of his poverty, a fact that all the other students in the class already know.  Miss Caroline believes that Scout is being disrespectful to her and whips Scout’s hands with a ruler.

I don’t mean to be so hard on Miss Caroline. She is a young teacher, and we know much more about effective instruction today than we did then.

But are we doing it?

Are we still asking all students to do the same exact assignments the same exact way?

Are we unknowingly punishing or embarrassing students living in poverty?

Are we valuing students’ background knowledge and home experiences to make connections to learning?

Are we planning for engagement?

These are uncomfortable questions.

Are our classrooms all that different from Miss Caroline’s?