Try This Back-to-School New School Twist on an Old School Question

Back to school. 

It’s that time of year and students, parents, and merchants are getting ready.

And so are you.

What you do on your opening day sets the tone for your entire school year, and there are plenty of ideas for how to start.

Whether you are a first year teacher, or a veteran educator, using a first-day
ice breaker helps students ease into your class procedures and expectations,
and helps them get comfortable within the new social setting.

It also provides you with insight into the personalities and mindsets of your students.

Typical Ice Breaker Structures

Most ice breaker activities use one of these structures.

  1. paper and pencil find-the-person-who questionnaires.
  2. anticipatory sets to get students thinking about content
  3. intriguing examinations of topics from different perspectives

Some of the best ice breakers combine all three elements into one activity.

Try this one:

This question only requires a simple recall of events.

— What did you do during your summer vacation?

Ask the question this way to encourage inquiry.

— Guess what I the (teacher) did during my summer break?

Try this activity, and you will have students making inferences, drawing
conclusions, and supporting them with evidence — and writing something — on the first day.

Follow it with the second activity and gather information for the Project Based
Learning (PBL) Unit Have Passport, Will Travel, written by Kate Parker,
CFO of GoTeachGo.


Think and take Mini-Lesson #9  

Can you guess what the teacher did this summer?


Content Objective: Assessment for Informational Writing and Paragraph Structure

  • Use of Transitions
  • Use of Evidence to Support Assertions
  • Clarity and Coherency of Content
  • Evidence of Closure

Critical Thinking Skills Focus:

  • Look For Evidence and Drawing Conclusion
  • Making Connections

Total Time Approximations:

15 minutes – Mini-lesson
20-25 minutes – Partner activity


1. Gather Props that indicate things you did on your summer break

  • plants for gardening
  • pictures of family who visited
  • reunions
  • trip souvenirs
  • T-shirt w/logo
  • anything else that represents what you did during your break.

2. One roll of small carnival tickets
– alternate numbering 1, 2 on the backs.
3. Some kind of overhead display option, whiteboard
4. Two Critical Thinking Question Sets; one per activity (See lesson activities below for sets)

Typical First-Day Question with A Twist: Guess what I did this summer?

Before students enter your classroom, display
the following set of directions on the board in
front of the class:

1. Choose a seat, put your things down, and take
out 1 sheet of lined notebook paper.
2. Put your name on the paper.
3. Title the assignment:

What my teacher did this summer.

Procedural Suggestions

1.      As students enter your classroom, smile and welcome them, hand them a small raffle ticket, and invite them to choose a seat.

2.     Once all students are in the classroom, observe who noticed the directions written on the board, who is actually following them, and who is busy socializing. This gives you a quick insight into how to structure your lessons for individual classes.

3.     Settle them in, introduce yourself, take attendance, and go over your behavioral expectations, and daily and weekly routines and expectations. Tell students that every day there will be a short lesson (some call them bell-ringers) and that they will be expected to complete the lesson each day. Let them know your procedure for collecting and grading the assignment.

4.      Let students know that they will complete the first activity of the day by themselves, and you will collect it because it helps you understand how to help them when you know how they think as  individuals. Tell them the second activity will be done in partners, and for the partner activity, they will need their tickets.

Watch to see who fumbles about trying to find the ticket. 


5.      When the fumbling stops, check for the raffle tickets by asking students to hold them up so you can see how many still have them. This will also give you some first-day insight into the organizational skills of your students. Give out more to those who have misplaced them. Tell them to hang on to the tickets for the second activity.

6.      Allow for a few more minutes to set up for the mini-lesson for those students too social to notice the directions on the board. Walk around and observe, and help where needed. They should all have or be in the process of getting the paper set up with their name and the title on the page. Some may have even started to make a list of what they think you did over the summer. That’s okay. It’s another authentic assessment that shows which students are able to make inferences and are ready to get to work.

Mini-lesson Activity

1.     Once everyone has their papers set up, tell the students they will be using the critical thinking skills of looking for evidence and making connections using their own experiences to draw conclusions that lead them to smart, intelligent answers.

2.      Show students the items you brought to use as clues to what you did during your summer break, and show them one item at a time. Have students write the name of each as you show them. After you have shown all the objects, have students answer the following questions in paragraph form based on what they see in all 3 objects.

This activity will assess your students’ paragraph writing abilities and understanding of transitions in paragraph writing, so it is recommended that you don’t frame the paragraph for this activity.

3.     Display the main question on the board, and include these questions to be covered in the paragraph as part of the display, like so:

Main Question:  Can you guess what I did during my summer break?

  • What are the objects? List all three before you draw your conclusions.
  • From looking at the objects, what do you think I did during my summer break?
  • What evidence from or about the objects suggests that I participated in this activity?
  • What connections did you make to your own experiences that helped you draw this conclusion?
  • Use sensory clues to help you describe your ideas: smell, sound, sight, taste, touch
  • Were you right?

4.     Let students share their findings with the class. When the sharing stops, tell them how you spent your break as it connects with the items. Ask for a show of hands to see who got it right.

Lesson Extension Activity – Partners – Two Lies and One Truth

1.     For the partner activity, tell students to turn their papers over and write two lies and one truth about what they did during their summer break. Let them know that they will be trying to fool their partners, so they want to be clever in the clues they write.

2.     Then have them look at the number on the back of their tickets. If they have a  #1, they find someone who has a  # 2, and if a #2, find someone who has a #1. They may need to move about, so instruct them to take their papers, pencils, and tickets with them if they move.

3.     Once everyone is partnered up, instruct students to turn their papers over, and write their partner’s first and last name on the back.

4.      Next, students read their two lies and one truth to their partners, and their partners try to guess from the list which is true. Students then write about what they found to be true by answering the following question in paragraph form.
What is your partner’s clue?

  • Based on this clue, what do you think your partner did during his/her summer break?
  • What evidence from the clue helped you decide?
  • What connections did you make to your own experiences that helped you draw this conclusion?
  • Use sensory clues to describe your ideas: smell, sound, sight, taste, touch
  • Were you right?

5.    Once both partners complete the activity, have them trade papers, read what their partners wrote, discuss, make adjustments, and ask them if there was anything else they would like to have done. Prompt them to discuss places they would like to visit and make lists of them on their papers. This information will help you when planning for the PBL unit — Have Passport, Will Travel.

6.   Students then introduce their partners to the class and describe one thing their partners did during the summer.

7.   They may read from their paragraphs.

Set-up for PBL Unit  –   Have Passport, Will Travel

1. Finally—Show them the Essential Question for the PBL Unit Have Passport, Will Travel, to let them know they will be studying how to plan for travel to places they would like to see. Encourage them to discuss this question outside of class and come to class the next day with ideas to share.

Essential Question: What are the benefits of planning before you travel.


2.      Make sure to make brief notations about your observations throughout the lesson or directly after your class session.


1.     Monitor the time throughout the lesson, and end the second activity 3 to 5 minutes before the bell rings. Review with students how the critical thinking skills used helped them understand the requirements of each activity

2.      Remind them that the mini-lesson/bell ringer directions will be displayed daily, so they need to look for them each day and get started on the activity right away.

3.     Collect the tickets for the next class, and remind them to gather their things together in time for the bell.

4.     Leave them knowing how much you enjoyed working with them and how much you look forward to seeing them all tomorrow.

5.      Have them turn in their assignment as they leave the class.



These activities make a great introduction and way to gather information for the Project Based Learning (PBL) Unit Have Passport, Will Travel, written by Kate Parker, CFO of GoTeachGo.


Be sure to visit TeachersPayTeachers to examine lots of great PBL units of study from GoTeachGo.


How to Outline an Essential Question that Develops Content Knowledge and Engages Students

Relevance, engagement, and motivation —three words tossed around and fretted about in education since students learned how to get teachers and adults to do their work for them.

Teachers constantly look for ways to motivate and engage their students, and that’s a good thing; however, when motivational strategies move into modes of entertainment, learning remains passive and, critical and creative thinking declines because the performance is only relevant to the entertainer.

Time to rethink.

Students need to actively engage in their learning to develop innovative and intelligent thinking skills. Change the focus from entertaining to interesting. Make it an adventure — an exploration and discovery through inquiry. Make it something they have to do themselves to find the answer. In this way, students become active participants in their own learning, develop self-motivation, and learn how to entertain themselves.

Inquiry? Yes!

The key to developing interest in learning stems from the question. In Project Based Learning (PBL), it is called The Essential Question or the Driving Question. Think of it as the controlling idea that controls the path of discovery.

According to Jeffrey D. Wilhelm in his article “Essential Questions”, adding inquiry or starting with an Essential Question made all the difference in the engagement levels of his students.

Turning Essential Questions into Standards-Based Inquiries

Essential questions help teachers outline lessons using content standards to develop content knowledge. These questions begin the inquiry process through activities like those found in PBL units and actively engage students in finding answers and/or solutions.

Look at this example that uses an Essential Question to begin an inquiry into the relevance of the narrative elements of characterization.

1. Ask one Unit Essential Question of a philosophical, thematic, or open-ended nature.
—What strategies do good readers use to understand what they read?

2. Choose a standard to focus the inquiry.
—ELA Standard Focus: Narrative Element – Characterization

3. Ask one Lesson Essential Question for each standard focus
—How does understanding narrative elements help us understand characters’ actions and motivations?

4. Chose five vocabulary words necessary to further understand the standard.
—Character, Plot, Setting, Conflict/Problem-Solution, Motivations, Actions

Now take a look at the same Essential Question as outlined for a standards-based unit that further develops the inquiry process.

Here is another example using two Essential Question outlined for a standards-based unit on the development of democracy .

Essential questions require open-ended inquiry on thematic topics. They prompt students to use critical and creative thinking skills, persuasive and comparative skills, lead to other questions, and ask relevant questions that have meaning to students—and they require students to reflect on their thinking throughout the inquiry process.

Teachers Benefit From Using Essential Questions

Take a look at the way this teacher applied Essential Questions to moniter her professional goals and objectives.

One question:
What atmosphere facilitates powerful learning?

One answer:
An atmosphere of inquiry.

One outcome:
A start to instructional design

Below is another example of the kinds of Essential Questions teachers can ask themselves as they reflect on how they want to approach the ways they
perform their job.

Inquiry Leads to Understanding

Learning starts with the need to know, and the key to making meaning for students, teachers, and most everyone comes in the “Ah-ha!” moment of discovery. The Essential Question begins the inquiry and develops the organized thought processes that drive the exploration—and the thrill of learning comes
with discovering the relevance of the outcome.

So—engage students with well-structured inquiry based instruction,
and they will motive themselves to find answers.

Think-and-Take Lesson #8

The mini-lesson for this week is to emulate one of the outlines above—either for your students or for yourself— or start with an Essential Question in one of the PBL units from GoTeachGo to structure your outline. Then visit Teachers-pay-Teachers to purchase the entire unit.

1. BAM: Body and Mind – Why are children’s life expectancies lower than their parents?
2. Drawing the Line: Global Theme Park Design: What do monuments tell us about the cultures they represent?
3. Head Banger Nation: Does risk of injury mean kids shouldn’t play sports or have fun?
4. Have Passport Will Travel: What are the benefits of planning before you travel?
5. Comic-Con: How do laughter and entertainment enrich our lives?
6. Publish or Perish: How are magazines put together?
7. Selling Out The Kids: How does advertising influence to do things and buy things?
8. Time Travellers: What America be like today if disease and hunger had not taken so many lives?

You can also go to Greenville County School District to access their comprehensive list of Essential Questions.

Be sure to visit TeachersPayTeachers to examine lots of great PBL units of study from GoTeachGo.


Can depth of knowledge be measured by multiple choice tests alone? How can student communication and demonstration of what students can do with what they have learned best be measured?


Performance Based Assessment.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is performance based assessment. Think about it.


PBL lessons/units teach content. Proficiency level determination is based on the use of learned content in the creation of new and useful ideas, products or solutions communicated in tangible ways, then evaluated according to standard, or—assessed on level of performance.

As well, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are performance based making PBL the perfect vehicle for alignment and instruction.

Institutions such as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced have come up with assessment ideas aligned to CCSS that John Larmer details well in the first article of his series on “How PBL Prepares Students for CCSS Test Performance Tasks…“. Based on ideas in the criteria for assessment made by Smarter Balanced that Larmer discusses in his article, the tests might be like this:


Standardized tests with multiple choice sections, each section ending with a performance assessment.


The performance assessment part goes as follows:

  1. The teacher facilitates the test, which is structured much like a single lesson from a PBL unit of study.
  2. Students go through the learning process that culminates in a result, and yes, partner work, even group work is involved as part of the test.
  3. The test takes a couple of days to complete.
  4. Students are assessed on their performance after the lesson has been taught.
  5. The outcome or product of the test / lesson determines proficiency level.

Observations — Not Absolutes. 

  1. The performance assessment sections not only test student content knowledge, they also provide an immediate reflection of teacher and instructional strategy effectiveness.
  2. Scoring of performance based tests is costly and time consuming when done as state assessments.
  3. Data results of statewide performance assessments often arrive too late for comparative analysis.
  4. Scoring performance based written communication and product outcomes is subjective making results questionable.
  5. Statewide assessment of performance based outcomes is redundant when the assessment is done as a regular part of classroom instruction. Use money to pay for statewide teacher training in how to implement Project Based Learning instead.

Standardized Tests and Performance Based Assessments

Regardless of test type, the results show that at least since 1996, PBL has made a substantial difference in student learning. Indiana University of Indianapolis, Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning published in 2009 a Summary on Student Research and Project-based LearningIn this study they found the following:

  • …students working on a geometry project linked to architecture and design utilized measurement skills as they developed their blueprints, of which 84% met architectural building standards (Barron, et al., 1998).
  • …one study of PBL showed a positive effect on low-ability students, who increased their use of critical-thinking skills including synthesizing, evaluating, predicting, and reflecting by 446% while high-ability students improved by 76% (Horan, et al., 1996).

How does this happen? Relevance.


PBL teaches students how to apply information learned to real world situations and to retain the knowledge that is learned. They remember what they learn because they see meaning in what they do.

Pay Attention to What is Being Tested.

Standardized tests happen, and Andrew K. Miller, Educator, Writer, and Certified Literacy Design Collaborative Trainer has a few tips to keep in mind when designing PBL units to fit the criteria of various standardized tests.

  1. Work within the structures of the test. Sometimes test criteria limits the amount of time spent on each standard, but it doesn’t limit creative ways to adapt PBL content to cover the required standards.
  2. Use PBL as a process to learning, not as a culminating project after test prep activities. As Andrew says, “Dessert projects are bad, but PBL leverages the project as the entire learning of the unit, not just the end.”
  3. Make sure PBL units hit frequently targeted standards of learning covered in these tests.
  4. Use sample test questions as formative assessments in the units of study.

Don’t have time to write PBL units? 


This week’s Think-and-Take lesson is to examine PBL units of study from GoTeachGo as found on Teacher’s-Pay-Teachers. They are truly Buy Today-Teach Tomorrow PBL Units with engaging titles including “Headbanger Nation: Youth Concussion Awareness Initiative“. Customize these units easily to fit the CCSS standards and/or other skills testing criteria.


Each unit incorporates the following PBL steps to learning:

  1. Driving or Essential Question
  2. Critical Thinking and Research
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Sharing
  6. Revision and Reflection
  7. Technology Integration
  8. 21st Century Skills

Each unit includes appendices that include the following:

  • extension activities and suggestions for customization
  • graphics and data for reference and use in lessons
  • black-line masters
  • list after list of research sources
  • rubrics for peer and teacher assessment
  • units available in three grade level sets: 4-5; 6-8; 9-12


Teachers LOVE these units because they SAVE them so much TIME, and because they provide RELEVANT TOPICS that keep students ENGAGED in their learning—and this means ACADEMIC SUCCESS!


Be sure to visit TeachersPayTeachers to examine lots of great PBL units of study from GoTeachGo.


Go Beyond Hands-on to Hands-in with Project Based Learning

Critical thinking, Habits of Mind, metacognition, and thinking about thinking 

—pick your term or phrase.


They all represent ways of helping students develop intelligent and effective thinking patterns, make meaning out of what they learn, and improve how well they learn.


Project based learning, experiential learning, and the constructivist approach

—pick your theory, pick your pedagogy.


They all incorporate methods and activities where students use critical thinking skills to learn by doing—the hands-on thing.  But it’s more than hands-on. Students don’t just produce a product for show, they perform the tasks hands-in, mind-in, all involved in examinations, analyses, inquiries, making comparisons and connections—

—and they are able to explain how they arrived at the conclusions they drew in the process of what they learned as well as how and why these conclusions led them to their final analysis, solution, or product. And they love it! They are completely engaged and often willing to give up break time to finish their work.

It’s not magic.

 It’s collaboration within an integrated curriculum structure,

and it’s called Project Based Learning.

Listen to what kids and teachers from School District 59, Peace River South in Dawson Creek, British Columbia have to say about Project Based Learning.

A Project Based Learning (PBL) Unit of Study

An excellent unit of study from GoTeachGo is BAM! Body and Mind. In this unit, as in PBL in general, students learn their accomplishments matter. The unit focus teaches students what it means to be healthy. The deeper understanding comes from research, comparison, and gathering data in a collaborative setting, and then creating something from findings that show what is learned. The lessons then move beyond show and into something sustaining and beneficial to others—as in this unit—students create a cafe they continues to manage, even after they have moved on to a new unit. What a great way for students to make money to support school activities.

At the end of each lesson in the unit, students reflect metacognitively on the critical thinking skills they used, how these skills helped them make sense of information as they learned, and what they learned about their own thinking habits.

It’s an integrated blend of thinking applied to content, and the product has meaning to students.

Think-and-Take Mini-Lesson #6

“Eat This, Not This”

Lesson from GoTeachGo 
PBL Unit – BAM! Body and Mind

Available on Teacher’s Pay Teachers

Eat this, Not This – A Game

This game comes later in the unit after students have done extensive study analyzing food labels on a variety of products. The food choices shown are not necessarily the healthiest choices to start with, but the idea is to know how to pick the lesser of the two bad choices, and to start thinking how to make unhealthy choices more healthy.

Students  have 7 pictures that ask students to compare the following food items and/or food from various restaurants. (Images of products and food choice are provided in the unit. At least two sets should be distributed to each group). These comparisons include the following:


  • Cheeses
  • Crackers
  • Cereals

Restaurant Foods:

  • Olive Garden pasta dishes
  • Burger King hamburger types
  • Subway Sandwich types
  • Kentucky Fried Chicken


1.  Break students into groups and have each group write down which the following are the healthier  choices, and why they think that way.

2.  Have students look over the food comparisons one at a time, discuss each one, and choose the one their group thinks is the healthiest of the two.

3.  Then have them discuss why the answer they think their answer is correct.

4.  After students have completed the activities for all comparisons, have each group share one of the answers to a comparison that they want to share.

5.  Then put the pictures that show the answers on the ELMO or some kind of overhead display so students can see how they did.

6.  The group(s) that get the most right win!


1. Ask students to write about at least one of the five critical thinking skills they used most to arrive at their conclusion. They might answer how the skill helped them and their group, and how using the skill helped them better decide on the choices they made. The idea is to get students thinking about thinking.

And that’s the objective!

Be sure to visit TeachersPayTeachers to examine lots of great PBL units of study from GoTeachGo.
Recommended Reading: “Why Is Project-Based Learning Important?”


Everyone loves recognition. It satisfies, and it motivates, but without a connection to something that matters, or something of significance, it doesn’t engage anyone.

My principal, during the times when she visited to observe or formally evaluate my teaching performance, left sticky-note messages thanking me for doing well and listing at least three specific points that stood out to her as well-done. It took the edge off the whole evaluation process and just plain felt good.

Why? Because it had significance. It meant something to me.

It satisfied my need to feel treated like a professional and kept me motivated to continue developing my skills, but more important—it made me feel like my contributions were helpful to the goals of the school and the needs of the students—

—and it kept me engaged for the betterment of the system.

Recognition becomes significant enough to be memorable and makes us want to do more when the feedback we get moves beyond praises for effort and into gratitude for accomplishments. It’s a great management strategy, and one that business developer Manohar Kamath discusses well in his article “Random Acts of Recognition-Motivating Your Team Regularly”.

This is also true for students. Recognition and experiences that matter mean everything. Recognize them for accomplishments, and get them involved in Project Based Learning activities where they learn to develop the critical thinking skills needed to accomplish something significant—significant enough for them to understand how their actions affect their lives and the lives of others, and how their contributions matter for the greater good—

—and they will be completely engaged.

Think-and-Take Mini-Lesson #5
“Consider The Significance”
Lesson from GoTeachGo
Critical Thinking – The Complete Starter Guide – All Grade Levels
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Each of these mini-lessons is preparing students for the critical thinking skills they will need to use in Project-Based Learning Units of study. They make great openers to read kids for class.

You teach students to find evidence to support their opinions or assertions all of the time. But when you teach them to analyze, examine, and question how others arrived at the conclusions they made, their understanding deepens and new insights are achieved.

Remind your students that each day that each day this week they practiced skills that smart thinkers use to make good decisions and solve problems. Use this mini-lesson as a bell-ringer (and the last one in the critical thinking series) and wake your class up to a deeper level of learning. Tell your students these skills are called critical thinking skills, and remind them smart thinkers use them every day.

The Mental Checklist of all five skills will be used each week as reference in each mini-lesson.
Looking for Evidence
Making Connections
Point of View
Considering and Imagining Alternatives
Considering Significance

1. Write on the board the objective: Yesterday you learned about the thinking skill “Considering Alternatives”. Today our learning outcomes are to begin developing the critical thinking skill of “Considering Significance” and participate in activities where you brainstorm things that are significant to you and analyze other situations to determine their significance. (You can word this your way).

2. Show students the Mental Checklist on the ELMO or SmartBoard. Review with students the five critical thinking skills, and remind them they will be practicing and learning 1 new skill each day.

3. Introduce the new thinking skill with an all class discussion.
Start with a whole class discussion. Ask these questions and encourage responses with specific examples.
–What does significance mean to you?
–What matters to you?
–Why does it matter to you?

4. Brainstorm a list of synonyms for significance – Make sure one of them
is value.
–Discuss the general meaning of significance in things, situations, actions and people that are significance.

5. Individual Work – Display this picture on the ELMO
–Have students write one thing that is valuable to them.
–Then have them write one thing that they think is valuable about themselves.
–Have students brainstorm individually
–things, situations, or places that have significance to them.
–choose as many students as want to share.

6. Ask students the following question and choose as many students as want to share.
–What did you learn about considering significance?
–How hard was it to come up with what you have done that is significance?
–What most did you learn about significance?

7. End the lesson by having students write a paragraph. Have them write about the questions discussed in class. Remind them they are to write about what they learned about the skill of “Considering Significance”. Perhaps they can describe an experience that was significant to them and how they felt about it. How did this significance affect the way you continued to work?

Be sure to walk around as students are writing, and observe their responses while prompting them for specific details where needed.

8. Collect paragraphs from students who want you to share what they have written, and put them in one stack. Put the others in a second stack. Assure students whose paragraphs you will read that you will not read aloud their names unless they have let you know it is okay to do so.

9. On Grading: You can collect them and count them as participation points for daily grades, and have students file them in their writing portfolios daily. Then they can revisit them each week to monitor their understanding. Or you can let students keep them as a reminder of what they are learning throughout the week, and have them turn the paragraphs in each week or file them weekly and turn them all in at the end of each quarter. No matter how you assess these paragraphs, you will have gotten the students thinking about their thinking.

And that’s the objective!

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