creativity · curriculum · curriculum planning · informational writing · research · writing workshop

No More Cookie-Cutter Teaching

Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 7.13.34 PMEvery Christmas we make the same five types of cookies.  Over the last few years, I’ve noticed our kitchen feels like a factory on baking day. Each member of our family has a job, so our cookie-making happens efficiently.  Even though we’ve tried new recipes here and there, we continue to make the same five cookie recipes.  It feels comfortable to do the same things year-after-year, right?

Well, this year, we felt as though our cookies were sub-par, lackluster, and downright BORING when we sat our cookie tray beside several others at a Christmas gathering. Theirs were impressive works of art, which made me realize we need to make some new recipes instead of baking the same cookies every year.

Like the cookie recipes, we have dependable lessons in our classrooms.  Lessons we have implemented year after year. We know what needs to be done, what needs to be prepared before we start, and how long the unit will take. We are comfortable with those lessons.  So when we try to bring in new experiences, pedagogies, or tools, it can be overwhelming. Some teachers dip their toes in the water, some turn their backs, and some dive right in and see where the new practices take them.

Let’s take a look at teaching about research for example.  Traditionally, classroom research projects I have taught, and seen others teach, look similar to this:

  • The student determines a topic (or picks one from the teacher-generated list).
  • The teacher determines questions students will answer about the topic.
  • The student visits the school or classroom library to find books to answer the predetermined questions.
  • The student searches student-friendly websites to answer the predetermined questions.
  • Students fill in the teachergenerated graphic organizers or take notes to answer the predetermined questions.
  • The student uses the information gathered to write a report or book as a way to share information.
  • Classmates gather and listen to each student share out what they have learned.

Research units looked much like this in my classroom for a few years, until I realized my students were not independent in the process.  I was left frazzled as students struggled to find the answer to the questions, record new learning in their own words, follow directions, and present their research in a way peers could understand and appreciate. It was clear; I was working harder than the students.  The students didn’t take ownership or choice in their learning. Things had to change.

This year I am working with a second-grade teacher who does research differently.  She and her class broke the mold of the traditional research project.

IMG_0414 (1)The teacher was guiding her class in a study of famous Americans and the impact they had on our country.  To help maintain focus on how the famous American impacted our country, she prompted them to use a familiar thinking routine: heart, head, hands, and feet. The teacher encouraged her students to think about how the individual touched our world with the passion in their heart, the information they studied (the head), the work they did with their hands, and the actions they took (the feet).

As the class read books and browsed internet sites, the teacher modeled how to record learning in the form of a question. This strategy supported the students as they learned to analyze and synthesize what they’d read.  For example, the class studied Jane Goodall. The students learned Jane dreamed to live with animals and help them. They asked: “Who dreamed of living with animals and helping them?

The students were inspired to continue this work.  Isn’t this what we want as teachers? We want to demonstrate work that encourages our students.  Teachers want to do work with the students that leave them asking if they can continue this work on their own?

Each student had ownership before they even began their research. The students chose a famous American and got to work.  They created a representation of their famous American containing the questions (appropriately placed) on the heart, head, hands, and feet of their famous American.  

IMG_0410 (1)This work is displayed proudly for others to see as you enter the room.  A quick read (QR) code is also available. A scan of the code leads you to a class Padlet where students share their work and leave comments for their peers.

This teacher admits, almost apologetically, that she goes with the flow. She plans with her kids in mind, and while she knows where they need to go, she follows her students’ lead. Following the lead of the students is the art of teaching.

As educators, we need to take ownership of our teaching.  If you think your tried and true lessons are lackluster, then change them.  Start by looking at your students and asking, what do my students need? What are their strengths? Next, look at the VERBS in your standards. Precisely what is it your students need to master in this unit?  Finally, embrace the art of teaching by following their lead.

16 thoughts on “No More Cookie-Cutter Teaching

  1. The traditional way of teaching a research project in your example sounds EXACTLY like the project of the teachers that I work with. I hope to be able to use this as an example for them! I love how the organization of the topic and how it’s presented (the heart, head, hands and feet) is so concrete and allows the students to really understand what and why they are researching it! Thank you for this!


  2. I saw a first grade teacher freshening up her animal research today by creating inquiry questions, letting kiddos work together, using short information cards gleaned from science units. In the background on her screen were eaglets in a next, real research in action. So strong and engaging.


  3. “Following the lead of the students is the art of teaching.” Love this line! The shift in thinking about teaching and allowing the children to not only take the lead, but feed their energy and questions to the work at hand. Responsive teaching is energizing for kids and teachers!


  4. Amazing, especially since this is not a curse of having been in the classroom for ages/years. Even our new teachers have fallen into this trap because they’ve adopted the projects that ‘we’ve always done.’ The analogies that are included, whether to cookie making or cookie eating, in these blogs, are incredible!


  5. The part about students turning their learning into a question is brilliant. This is a perfect way for students to not only begin thinking past what is being said but truly begin to synthesize, as you said, what they are reading. I think the “person” organization idea was very interesting too, I started thinking how could this be adapted, with the topic in mind, to anything? It could be a really nice scaffold for students to talk through the body (no pun intended) of an essay and begin thinking about the heading/subtopic that ties that part of their life together. Love all of this.


  6. Some great thinking about research. It’s unfortunate that some teachers are required by their districts to have students complete a certain end product. Learning, especially research, when done with a spirit of curiosity can become evident in so many creative ways that represent clear evidence that a student has gained new knowledge and skills.This teacher’s research project also builds a sense of community as students follow the thread of heart, head, hands, and feet to learn (and share) what they have discovered.


    1. @karenszymusiak I have been thinking about this “certain end product” question recently with in a small high school who don’t have such a requirement in place. English teachers assign mostly 1-3 page papers aside from two major projects at 10th and 12th grade. We have been wondering together what would happen if there was certain expectations in place for mid-sized papers, with freedom given to the teachers in a given year to develop/determine the scope and focus of the paper. I wonder if this is what many districts are trying to get at, but want to “ensure” it so there is some missing link of ownership from central office to the classroom


    2. Karen,
      Yes, student choice is key and shouldn’t be stifled. Still, this method of inspiring kids, teaching kids to synthesize can be taught in this manner. Leaving kids excited to dig into a larger project.


  7. This was so inspiring, Deb! I’m wondering if the teacher is responsible for students having a finished product in the form of an essay or paragraphs, or if the work they did on post-its and on the Padlet is enough. In my district, every unit has a pre-demand and post-demand and an expectation of a piece of writing- a personal narrative, personal essay. literary essay, poem, and speech. Does your district have these type of expectations and how does this work fit in?


    1. Thanks, Kathleen. Our district does have a few benchmark writing assessments. The students in this class also have other projects of research where they’ll create books, films, posters, etc. students follow their interest and create as they choose is best to share the information. The key is for the teacher to inspire and encourage the kids through what you introduce them to. Then, wait. Trust the process. They’ll come.


  8. Yes, this is good. I was talking to a colleague about this just the other day. I teach college composition, and we are told that our students have to do certain things, but I learned a while ago that the best thing for me to do is to (a) design assignments that interest me (i.e., what kind of assignments do I want to read?) and (b) give students a choice. And question asking is key! I am a huge fan of using the QFT (Question Formulation Technique) in my classroom. The big struggle I face is encouraging students to do think about what interests them instead of what they think interests me. Sigh.


  9. Deb, this line is so key: “We want to demonstrate work that encourages our students.” Also, “Following the lead of the students is the art of teaching.” For years, I taught as an ‘assign-and-assess’ teacher, not realizing that by doing so I was missing an opportunity to really inspire my students. I focused on teaching curriculum, not kids. This post is such a great reminder that when we work to teach as wide-awake, responsive teachers, our teaching can really come alive and make a difference.


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