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The Differentiated Classroom: Effective Instruction for All Students

One size does not fit all.


Differentiation is an idea as old as effective teaching.”


It is a student-focused way of thinking about teaching and learning, and it is designed to address learning and affective needs that all students have. (Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms.)  


Students in our diverse classrooms have different backgrounds, interests, and strengths. They learn in different ways and want to know how learning is relevant to their lives. Differentiation enhances learning for all students.


The first step in a differentiated classroom is knowing the skill level of the students. Certain students may require extra help, whereas others already understand and can apply the skill. Math instruction in a third grade differentiated classroom might include a pre-assessment referred to as “Most Difficult First.” In this practice, students do the most difficult problems first. Students who demonstrate understanding of a concept can skip the instruction and proceed to more challenging concepts.  

  • Some students could be investigating the sums of different sequences of addends, such as consecutive odd or even numbers, in a small group.
  • Other students could be independently exploring the same patterns on a deeper level, using algebraic expressions to explain their findings.
  • Others might be creating their own mental math challenges for others to solve.

Teachers who modify the content, process, or product of the curriculum are using differentiation to respond to students’ instructional readiness, interests, and skill levels. They serve as facilitators to meet students at their starting points and move each student forward based on individual needs

Teachers Can Differentiate

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According to Students'

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The content is the topics/concepts/skills the students must learn. Relevant content matters to students and makes what is taught and learned much easier. One way to differentiate content is through acceleration of instruction. Students can work ahead independently.


Process is how students learn the content. Differentiate the process by modifying the pace, the complexity, or the activities. For example, directions can be specific for some students and more open-ended for others. Students might visit a classroom center for an in-depth study of a topic of interest.


Differentiating the product means varying the complexity of the product – the end result of what the students learned and are able to apply. There are numerous sources of product ideas for teachers. It is motivating for students to be offered a product choice that is personally relevant.


Tomlinson also uses the learning environment as a fourth way to differentiate. This includes the classroom’s operation and tone, such as furniture arrangement, lighting, and procedures.


Modify the Pace, Complexity, or Activities with Differentiation

Screen Shot 2017-10-02 at 9.33.02 AM.png*You can check out some differentiated classroom resources by clicking these links: Book choice; Technology Integration.


Tomlinson further explains how, in a classroom without differentiation, student similarities seem to take center stage. “In a differentiated classroom, commonalities are acknowledged and built upon, and students’ differences also become important elements in teaching and learning.” (How to Differentiate Instruction, 2017)  


How are you using differentiation in your classroom?


Teacher Survival Kit: When a Student Says, “I’m Bored.”

Time goes by slowly when one is bored!


You have channeled the active energy of the new school year into a positive learning environment and worked hard to create meaningful learning experiences, while building a sense of community.


Classroom arrangement promotes optimum engagement. And yet, a parent tells you, “My child is bored in class.” You ponder solutions and/or your shortcomings. Never a good thing.  


What does it mean when a child says s/he is bored?  


It’s impossible for any teacher to keep boredom at bay for all students, all of the time. Despite relevant content and a positive learning environment, students have different interests, needs, and strengths. Engaging content for one student may be boring for another. Students learn in different ways, and what works for some students, may not work for others.


Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says the American education system treats boredom as a “character flaw. We say, ‘If you’re bored in school, there’s something wrong with you.’” He recommends adding more choice to the classroom by assigning more hands-on projects, in which students have control over their learning.  


The impact of choice and student interest is also highlighted in an Educational Leadership article that describes how “when 5th and 6th graders were asked to draw their typical learning experiences, they often put books and teachers and chalkboards in their pictures—but not themselves (Bishop & Pflaum, 2005). But when they depicted learning they liked, their own images were front and center.”


“I’m bored” can be a result of assigned work that is too difficult or too easy. Sometimes, hard work is boring. A National Association of Elementary School Principals report explains how learning multiplication facts requires time and work that may not be fun.  

  • A child may question, “Why bother learning that stuff when I have a calculator or a computer?” (Some children also learn that saying “I’m bored” is a way to get their parent’s attention.)
  • The report suggests helping children learn to take responsibility for boredom to increase independence and maturity.  
  • Much satisfaction comes from completing routine tasks well and on time. My sixth grade flute friend is thrilled she can perform a three octave chromatic scale. It’s routine now, but it took dedication and practice.  

Conversely, students who learn and retain information quickly may dislike the routine and drill of learning math facts. They have already mastered the facts and need to be challenged. These “fact masters” require learning experiences that have a higher degree of complexity such as:  


The product of the two numbers is 27. The quotient is 3.

What are the numbers?  


What do you think are the causes of classroom boredom? Learning choices and differentiation are two approaches to prevent it.


September at If Then Creativity

September’s resources offer a wide range of content to begin the new school year as an inspired teacher.


From tips to getting the school year off to a good start to ideas for back to school night, September’s resources offered a wide range of content to begin the school year inspired. 


Thank you readers of If Then Creativity for learning from and with us and for joining us in our mission to create quality educational services and products. If Then Creativity exists for you.  


The first weeks of school:  Support and Suggestions

3 Must Do’s On the First Day of School

5 Tips to Create a Positive Learning Environment the First Weeks of School

How Creating and Practicing Classroom Procedures Early in the School Year Can Save Your Sanity

Back to School Night Tips From Real Teachers


Teacher knowledge that supports student learning:

Advice on How to Handle Student’s Questions About Difficult Current Events

4 Ways to Build Excitement for Reading Nonfiction

Teacher Tips for Calling a Student's Parents


Are you looking for new ways to integrate the arts into your classroom?  


Download our image integration activity, A Picture to Ponder.  It is a wonderful way to jump-start students' critical and creative thinking.  Looking closely at art enables students to think and express themselves in new ways, while appreciating the perspectives of others.  They develop an awareness of historical context, conceptual learning, and creative possibilities.  


Vincent van Gogh, Farmhouse in Provence, 1888 Image Use:  open access

Vincent van Gogh, Farmhouse in Provence, 1888

Image Use:  open access

A Picture to Ponder
An image interpretation activity to jump-start students' critical and creative thinking.
Picture to Ponder.pdf
Adobe Acrobat Document 645.8 KB

Here are 8 great articles I read in September about teaching/learning/education.  


Newbery/Caldecott predictions.


 A simple question about what motivates her child, led to this parent’s response.  


 Some experts say learning styles do not exist.


 “Students making projects, around their passions, collaborating with peers, and maintaining a playful attitude.”


The 3-step lesson plan.


 There is a gap between student creative expression at home and at school.


 The many ways paper remains essential for productive learning.  


Administrators, teachers need your support. 


Teacher Tips for Calling a Student's Parents

Connecting with parents via telephone keeps parents in-the-know and prevents concerns from becoming larger problems.


Nowadays we can call anyone at anytime and anywhere, but who answers the phone?


Okay, so no one’s answering, and yet you need to discuss an important, time-sensitive issue about a student. If you leave a message, will the parent return your call? To ensure that phone call happens, keep the lines of communication open, and keep parents in-the-know with the following proactive recommendations.  

  • At the beginning of the year, inform parents how to reach you, and note your availability.  Many parents do not understand how difficult it is to respond to emails or phone calls during the school day. They may assume your planning time is your “free time” and expect a return call within hours. Help them understand that your first responsibility is to your students. At open house night, on your class website, or in your first newsletter home, share the time frames that parents can expect return emails and/or phone calls. 
  • Try to make the first telephone call or the first handwritten note home a positive one. Share how a child is a great listener or skilled at using technology. Developing a positive first connection makes it easier to call when there is a more pressing issue.  
  • Update parents with simple newsletters or website information that informs them about upcoming units of study and important dates. Highlight what your students have learned along with ways parents can extend the learning at home.  

When to call a student's parents often depends on the school’s overall philosophy, but if you have concerns about a student’s behavior or academics, it might be time to call. 

  • Be prepared to share strategies you have used to address the concern.
  • Listen well to the parent’s reactions and suggestions, even if they differ from your own.
  • Focus on solutions to help the child, and document the conversation for future reference.  

Prior to the call home, consider the parent’s situation. Is s/he at work? It’s difficult to talk openly about your child in front of others. Could a letter be sent home instead? Formal letters give parents time to respond more thoughtfully. Parents know their children best; their input and suggestions are vital to improving any situation. Through the context of the letter, you can suggest a follow-up telephone call and/or a parent/teacher conference.   

Respond to the following types of parental questions and concerns with emails:

  • Assignments
  • Progress on a project
  • Special programs or classroom events

Call parents (or mail a formal letter) about more serious confidential matters such as:

  • Grade/Test score requests
  • Social or emotional issues
  • Medical issues
  • Behavioral problems

Connecting with parents via telephone keeps parents in-the-know and prevents concerns from becoming larger problems. Keeping the lines of communication open brings an understanding of what works best for the child’s success.  

How do you converse with parents about a concern? Has technology made the telephone call obsolete?

4 Ways to Build Student Excitement for Reading Nonfiction

Nonfiction is an essential and motivational component of reading instruction


Whether it’s massive black holes or bursting volcanoes, the best way to get children excited about reading is to read with them, and let them see you reading too! Counter to what some readers think, nonfiction is not dry facts and information.


In fact, librarian Neal Wyatt refers to the genre as the “extravagantly rich world of nonfiction.” Connect with your students as they discover the countless treasures within the wonderful world of nonfiction.

  1. Children are thrilled to learn that nonfiction includes sports, jokes, and pets. Inspire young readers by sharing a few of your favorite nonfiction titles and topics. Other children’s nonfiction subjects that elementary students like include:
  • Ghosts
  • Holidays
  • Fairy tales
  • Dinosaurs
  • Animals
  • Drawing
  • Space
  • Poetry
  • Biographies
  1. Incorporate “draw-to-learn.” Prior to reading nonfiction, have students use graphic organizers or mind maps. It helps learners develop ideas or “aha” moments. For example, prior to reading about an animal, students map ideas or topics they want to investigate, such as food, habitat, behavior, predators, etc. They also write questions they wanted answered about each idea or topic.

Students start with the animal name in the center of the map, then they draw or write ideas that come to them. Once they have many ideas, they can be grouped. Mind maps can also be done collaboratively as a class too. Students brainstorm ideas as a group, then write individual questions they want answered based on the collaborative ideas.

  1. Nonfiction includes spectacular illustrations and photographs. Titles, headings, captions, and bold print highlight the photos and guide young readers as they learn more about their favorite animals or athletes. Ask students to write new captions for their favorite photos within the books. Extend the learning by having them write catchy captions and titles for their own illustrations or photographs.  
  1. After reading a biography, children love to share their knowledge about the person with others. These “top five” prompts can be used as a choice menu for children. Have them select their favorite prompt to identify, summarize, and highlight the person’s significance and life experiences.  

Nonfiction is an essential and motivational component of reading instruction. It is invaluable in teaching the following reading strategies and helps students demonstrate meaning from text.

  • Background Knowledge
  • Visualizing
  • Questioning
  • Inferring
  • Determining Importance

If you’re looking for recommended children’s nonfiction authors, a few of my favorites are Sandra Markle, Kathleen Krull, and any children’s book illustrated by Kadir Nelson.  Another excellent source is the ALSC Notable Children's Book List (nonfiction titles).  


Do you have a favorite children’s nonfiction author or book? There are so many, it’s hard to choose a favorite!

Advice on How to Handle Students’ Questions About Difficult Current Events


Controversial subjects should be discussed in schools.  Controversial subjects should not be discussed in schools.  Where do you fall along the agree/disagree spectrum?


We want our students to express themselves through relevant learning activities that have connections to the “real world.”


We emphasize reading nonfiction materials to expand their knowledge. We want them to become responsible citizens who practice empathy and engage respectfully with others. We can’t teach these skills without honest discussions – discussions that are, on occasion, difficult.


Some teachers feel comfortable facilitating sensitive subjects (and emotional moments). Others resist hot-button issues due to the divisive nature of the topics – topics with countless questions and no easy answers.  


According to Dr. Thomas Hollihan, professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication, “one of the most troublesome obstacles to effective classroom discussion is the reluctance to encourage students to discuss the truly complex and vexing public issues that divide us. Certain topics are literally walled-off and considered too controversial to risk discussing in a classroom for fear that they will make some participants uncomfortable.”


We often dismiss the impact local current events have on students.

I recall fourth graders very worried about racial hate graffiti they saw in the community. Another time, a third grade student was highly critical of a high school student volunteer with multiple piercings. “He’s not nice. He has piercings and tattoos.” Both were teachable moments. No matter the age of a student, it’s vital that we listen and acknowledge that s/he is concerned, worried or confused about something.


The National Association of School Psychologists offers advice for talking to your students about racial violence and other tragedies by reassuring students that they are safe at school.  


“Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.” Young students worried about images from the news lack the emotional development to understand certain events, which can lead to stress.


Talking about and respecting their concerns and opinions builds resilience.  


For older students, there is no shortage of issues for controversial discussion. After Charlottesville, Zoe Padron, a high school teacher, planned to listen more than speak in her classroom. “It’s my job to reflect back what I hear and help them name what they are feeling. When a student tells me he’s upset about what happened, chances are there is more than one emotion in there. It’s just fine to say, tell me more, what makes you upset? We’re not necessarily good at naming emotions, or we tend to name the wrong ones, use blanket emotions, or what I call the baby emotions – mad, happy, sad. What happened in Charlottesville is a good time to start working on those complex emotions.”  


For teachers looking for resources to assist with controversial subjects, Teaching Tolerance has numerous materials for all grade levels that emphasize social justice and anti-bias. Their lesson plans are relevant and easily incorporated into the curriculum. Their articles and webinars show teachers how to take action and facilitate sensitive subjects.  


Museums are another resource. Many offer practical ways for teachers to use their online collections as a basis for student research and exploration.

  • The Newseum has primary sources, lesson plans, and case studies on media literacy and our First Amendment freedoms.  
  • The National Museum of African American History and Culture is currently highlighting signature objects and primary resources from the Museum's collection.
  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website has an online encyclopedia to search teaching materials and lesson plans for students in grades 6-12. Museum educators are often available to help you meet the individual needs of your classroom. Just give the museum a call.  

Have you taken on any controversial subjects in your classroom? Did you find it difficult? Should controversial topics be taught in elementary school? Tell us what you think. 


Back-to-School Night Tips From Real Teachers

Parent/Teacher Open House Tips


Back-to-School Night, Open House, Parent Meet and Greet, Meet the Teacher Night, whatever it’s called at your school, it’s an opportunity to connect with families.


Yes, it’s a nerve-racking event. We want to make a good impression. That’s why many teachers start building parent connections before school even starts. If possible, presenting with your grade-level colleagues takes some of the pressure off. Working as a team lessens the preparation and presentation time. After the team presentation, parents can visit individual classrooms, which helps parents who have more than one classroom to visit.  


When talking with parents, follow the first day “must-do’s by sharing a bit of your personality, building parent enthusiasm with highlights of the year ahead, and incorporating the following tips from experienced teachers:

  • “I use true/false questions to take parents through policy and curriculum issues and my expectations for home support. Some of the questions are designed to make them laugh and to keep the mood light, but focused. Students devise true/false questions about their favorite subjects, books, etc.”  
  • “Review only the essentials. It’s not a time for individual conferences. If a parent wants to discuss something in detail, arrange a conference time. Provide parent volunteer and contact forms that include the parent’s name, the child’s name, and a contact number.”  
  • “Keep it low key and informal. I display some of what we've been doing – math investigations and problems, current events articles, books, etc. and go from there. I don't do a formal presentation.”
  • “Practice what you’re going to say beforehand. Review your classroom’s policies and procedures. Don't tell them you may or may not do something.”
  • “Be a little flexible. Parents will respect authoritarians to an extent (especially if they’re super-competent), but they like to know the teacher isn't completely rigid.”
  • “Bring food.”
  • “Make a FAQ handout for parents to take home that includes the daily schedule, homework expectations, class rules, how they can reach you, and your grading policies.”
  • “Be sure to tell parents you work very hard to make sure each day counts.” 
  • “I send the link to my presentation after I give it. That way anyone can review again, or watch it for the first time if they weren't able to attend.”
  • “Send parents an open house invitation that informs them about what will occur during the open house. The open house will answer questions such as…. ‘How much time should be devoted to homework?’ ‘How can I support my child at home?’”
  • “Display students’ work around the room and at their desks, and don’t talk too long.”

How Creating and Practicing Classroom Procedures Early in the School Year Can Save Your Sanity

Positive behaviors teachers want students to exhibit.


I was 21 when I accepted my first teaching job. Sixth grade, all subjects.  I knew nothing. Fortunately, I had a supportive principal as a mentor, a good friend as a colleague, and students that taught me as much as I taught them.


Our principal provided practical advice and opportunities for professional development – especially how to manage the classroom. I still remember him saying, “You might want to consider having the students raise their hands.” (Accepting call-outs reinforces that behavior.) While much has changed in education since then, many things remain the same, like the importance of making your classroom a positive place for students.


Classroom “must do’s” include establishing procedures and a management plan. Everything from collecting papers to dismissing students requires a procedure with practice. For example, dismissal time can be the most chaotic time of the day. It’s important for students to learn an organized method that ensures their safety. Packing up for the end of the day, listening quietly for bus numbers, sharing a goodbye, and walking to the designated dismissal location are procedures that must be practiced to become routine. With practice, procedures become automatic.


Procedures to practice include:

  • Lining up
  • Entering the classroom/Beginning the day
  • Homework collection
  • Bathroom use
  • Pencil sharpening
  • Noise level expectations
  • Technology use
  • Asking questions
  • Locker use
  • Recess time
  • Working in groups
  • Independent work

Students in positive learning environments have clear expectations and are aware of how to behave in all settings, including the lunchroom, playground, media center, and emergency/fire drills. They also understand the consequences of not following the procedure.  


In addition to learning numerous routines, classroom management specialists recommend three to five core classroom rules. In most of my classroom experiences, the students and I created these rules together. Involving students in the process allows them to understand how the rules are in place for them, so they have a positive place to learn. We discussed each rule, and we role-played both positive and negative examples of acceptable behavior.   


Many schools implement school-wide expectations. One effective school-wide intervention encouraged students’ academic, social-emotional, and behavioral success by following the motivational acronym ROAR.  

  • Respect
  • On-Task
  • Attitude
  • Responsibility 

These four expectations covered the positive behaviors teachers wanted students to exhibit.  

Maximize procedural structure in your classroom by showing/telling students want you want them to do rather than telling them what you don’t want them to do. Actively involve students in the process and practice, practice, practice! Teaching them how to be responsible for their learning aligns their excitement for the new school year with your instructional goals.


5 Tips to Create a Positive Learning Environment the First Weeks of School

Students start the school year at differing levels of excitement. Some are ready for the year to begin; others are reluctant to return.


It’s important to encourage all excitement levels by creating a welcoming, flexible classroom environment that supports consistency and active learning. Channel the active energy of the new school year into a positive learning environment with the following tips:

  1. Promote positivity. After the first week of school, do you continue to greet students in the morning? Are you upbeat about the day ahead? The mindset you model contributes to the overall atmosphere. Respect each student, listen to them, and take time to learn and incorporate their interests. These actions create a community of students who can grow both academically and personally.  
  1. Teach students how to carry out classroom procedures and routines, such as attendance, lunch count, office notes/messages, and supply collection/return. Introduce, practice, and role play each procedure step-by-step so students are well-prepared. Learning and completing these tasks teaches responsibility and leadership and comes in handy when you’re absent. Effective classroom organization (labels, file folders, storage bins, mail stations, etc.) enables students to easily follow through with their tasks.   
  1. Arrange the classroom for optimum student engagement. Every student has his/her preferred way to learn. Some can easily work in groups or pairs; others thrive independently. Set up classroom areas where students have options to work alone or in groups. Allow them voice and choice in selecting what works best. Active student engagement and participation can take many forms. Author Susan Cain explains, “If you think more broadly about it, a student who’s a good listener or who gives one really great, reflective comment is just as valued as the one who’s always raising their hand.”
  1. Focus on progress, not perfection. Mistakes are good! Help students learn self-direction by providing feedback that helps them reflect on what they have learned. Recent research notes how effective feedback should link to learning objectives and be specific in nature. The best feedback is not a letter or a numerical grade but clear directions on how to improve. Feedback specialist, Susan Brookhart, suggests “that teachers think very carefully about the learning target and the success criteria for a specific activity and only give feedback on that target. Students want to learn and they want feedback that will help them improve, but they also want to know why it matters. When a teacher can connect the feedback to an important future skill, students have a reason to incorporate it and can see the transfer process more clearly.”
  1. Add some procedural fun. Get and keep their attention with fun cues and signals. I had a variety of procedures/signals/choral chants to call the students to attention or to call on them for a response. A paper plate spinner with all the students names on it prevented me from calling on the same students. My oversized “magic” pen, which had a bell attached to it, signaled when to stop working and look at me. As an anonymous teacher once said, “A class that plays together obeys together.”

A positive learning environment is a productive learning environment. What strategies do you use to create a positive learning environment?


3 Must Do's On the First Day of School

The beginning of the school year is like a long, focused run.


Ready, Set, Go!  The beginning of the school year is like a long, focused run.  


Before students enter your classroom, you have spent hours getting ready. There are many important things to remember and share with students on the first day of school.  


When the big day arrives, there’s no better time to give yourself extra time by getting to school early and making sure everything is in place. The extra minutes provide a buffer for the unexpected and allow you to stay calm. That way you can welcome your newcomers with a smile and a good morning ritual to start the year. Once it’s time to get down to business, incorporate this list of First School Day Must Do’s.

  1. Positive teacher-student relationships start on the first day. Introduce yourself by sharing a bit of your personality. Tell them about your family, your interests, and the books you read over summer.  (If we want students to read, they need to know how much we like to read.) The students will quickly gauge your interaction style, and you want it to be one that is warm and respectful. While it takes time for everyone to get to know each other, the first day/week of school should include activities that focus on welcoming students, making them feel comfortable, and building a sense of community in your classroom.
  1. The procedural filled first day is exhausting for students, so build in time for movement breaks. Educator Aleta Margolis, founder and president of the Center for Inspired Teaching, emphasizes the important role that physical movement can and should play within the classroom, “For school to be a place where the talents of young people are cultivated rather than extinguished, we need to give students the freedom and responsibility to tinker, explore, test, prod, and physically interact with the world around them.” One way to do that is by incorporating movement into lessons.  
  1. A first day “must do” is to establish procedures, your management plan, and student expectations. However, it is also a day for enthusiasm about the coming attractions students will learn. Elementary students get excited about learning new topics and skills. Get them motivated by sharing a few highlights of the year ahead. Share sample projects from previous years, and empower them with your belief in their skills.

The first day never quite goes according to plan – especially the end of the day with all of the bus delay confusion.


Be patient with yourself and with your first day expectations. It’s an exciting day, but plans can go awry. That’s the beauty of teaching. No two days are the same. As day #1 comes to an end, thank students for a great day, and share how much you’re looking forward to seeing them again for day #2.

August at If Then Creativity

Teacher preparations for the new school year


Here’s hoping everyone had plenty of time for rest and relaxation this summer to help you transition into  back-to-school mode. Thank you for joining us in August as we focused on preparations for the new school year.


We invite you to continue to learn and enjoy everything we have to offer. From teaching advice to improving student engagement, our resources help you move through the school year inspired and ready to educate. Best wishes for a wonderful school year!


Cultivate a growth mindset with the following posts: 



Gather teaching strategies, inspiration, and ideas you can put into immediate action with these posts:



Here are 9 great articles about teaching/education/learning I read in August: 


  • Questions to ask your students on the first day of school.
  • These are the best shoes to make it through the school day.
  • Children who start school at an older age do better than their younger classmates.
  • Congratulations to the National Teachers Hall of Fame inductees!


Do you want to find a way to be more positive, try new things, and have a better work-life balance this school year? Perhaps you want to build your repertoire of teaching strategies or make some personal changes such as getting more sleep or spending more time with family. Whatever your goals may be, make sure you make them happen by downloading our New School Year Goals Worksheet and Action Plan.


School Year Goals and Action Plan
School Year Goals_Plan Description .pdf
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5 Great Films About Teaching for the Start of the School Year

5 great teacher movies

Looking for a great teacher movie to get you inspired for the start the school year?  Grab some popcorn, and watch one of the following selections.  


Captain Fantastic

Ben Cash is the ultimate homeschool parent.  Raising six kids in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, he teaches his amazing children how to be self-sufficient, well-read, and strong.  Their nonconformist life- style has consequences that eventually force Ben to face some hard truths. Poignant and thought-provoking.  


The Miracle Worker

A timeless classic starring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft who recreated their stage roles as Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.  The famous water scene (when Anne takes Helen to the water pump, and Helen understands the word w-a-t-e-r ) is legendary.  It’s the perfect movie example of teaching from the heart.  


Monsieur Lazar

After a school trauma, a compassionate, substitute teacher deals with his students’ emotions. Guiding the students through a difficult time, Monsieur Lazar does his best to make a difference in their lives while trying to build a new life of his own.  


Moonrise Kingdom

This is a movie about young love.  Two pre-adolescent runaways, Sam and Suzy, experience a thrilling adventure while the clueless adults set off on a mad search to find them.  Sam and Suzy are outcasts, but you will embrace the wonderful qualities that make them fascinating and endearing.  I would love to have Sam and Suzy in my classroom.   



Scary teacher alert.  I’ve sat in on a few testy band practices, but nothing compares to the agony delivered by jazz band director, Terence Fletcher.  In his teaching philosophy, the most harmful words are “Good Job!”  He pushes his ambitious student beyond limits with a teaching style I would NOT recommend.  Every teacher yells at some point, but this man’s fury is terrifying.

Teacher Survival Kit: Maximize Your Field Trip – A Guide for Museum Visits

A well-planned field trip can serve as inspiration to broaden perspectives


Albert Einstein shared the essence of learning through his famous maxim, “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” Museums excel at information and visits to many of them are quite an experience, but it’s engagement that matters.


I love museums, so I’m usually an engaged visitor, but others do not share my interest.  A graduate student in my museum education class described how he hated museums because he found them to be boring and irrelevant. Despite his dislike of the subject matter, he was an enthusiastic student with creative ideas about how museums should engage the public in more entertaining ways.  


He knew that the key to a successful learning experience is its ability to inspire.  A well-planned field trip can serve as inspiration to broaden perspectives, learn new topics, and develop new interests. The following tips will help you plan meaningful field trip experiences for your students.


Prepare yourself by reading about various experiences the museum offers.  Identify how the field trip program will complement and enrich the curriculum.  Is it a self-guided, observation only tour or a hands-on, interactive experience?  Will students have opportunities to explore and discover more about the topic or will they be listening to others? In other words, make sure you know what will happen on the trip. A boring field trip tour lasts forever.


Spend time building background knowledge prior to the visit with essential questions. Brainstorm questions about the topic, and have students further refine their questions in small groups to promote discussion.  Allow students to follow their curiosity and interests to help them make connections and understand the purpose of the visit. This process makes the upcoming trip more meaningful and relevant.  Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, authors of the book Essential Questions, share the following examples of arts-related essential questions.   

  • What can artworks tell us about a culture or society?
  • What influences creative expression?
  • If practice makes perfect, what makes perfect practice?  

Inspire emotional connections before the trip by reading books/articles about the topic and exploring the museum’s website.  Explore a few of the objects/artwork online to build a sense of how they are displayed.  Students will be excited when they see the objects they “know.”  


Reading what other teachers/students are saying about the museum program on social media also builds excitement for the trip. Many museums also offer opportunities to extend the learning for families.  For example, the National Aquarium in Baltimore partnered with the Enoch Pratt Free library to create the Read to Reef Book Club.  Kids can earn up to four Aquarium tickets through reading.


With younger children, don’t forget about the 4 “B”s of museum-going:  

  • Behavior:  Review how visitors/students behave at a museum.
  • The Building:  Young children react to new surroundings.  An encyclopedic museum can be overwhelming!  Take time to explain the site and its features.   
  • The Break: When will they eat their snacks/lunch?  Are backpacks allowed inside the building? Students won’t learn if they’re hungry.   
  • The Bathroom:  This should be the first stop before beginning any adventure with young children, and they should never enter a bathroom alone.  

Another B – the bus ride. Review the seating chart and the behavioral expectations before the trip, and make certain you notify the school nurse at least a week in advance.  Student medications and Epi-Pens will need to be placed in field trip medication envelopes.

On the day of the trip, pack:

  • Copies of the bus roster and itinerary for parents (leave one at school)
  • Emergency contact information/numbers for all students
  • Permission forms
  • First Aid Kits

Inquiry, creativity, inspiration, and discovery.  A well-planned, effective field trip enhances instruction by offering interdisciplinary learning and opportunities for students to think in new ways.


What meaningful field trips have you experienced?

Edtech: How to Leverage Instructional Technology in the Classroom and Beyond

Integrate the best edtech tools that match your students’ needs


A one-size-fits-all approach to instruction does not work in today’s classrooms. Students learn in different ways and what works for some students does not work for others. It’s the same with technology.  There are countless instructional gadgets, apps, and online programs. It takes time to learn and integrate the best edtech tools that match your students’ needs along with your teaching style.  


The easiest way to implement new technology is by experimenting with one resource at a time. Select a tool that meets your instructional/professional development goals. Get inspiration and ideas from colleagues, and encourage a friend to experiment with you. If the learning curve seems steep, allow yourself as much time as you need to feel comfortable. Practice and playful exploration are part of the process. Your motivation and willingness to learn something new will lead to new experiences for you and your students.  


Looking for ideas? Explore one of the following edtech tools.  Enjoy!


Contraption Maker

My creative colleagues once designed a fabulous Rube Goldberg contraption for a class project. At the time, they did not have access to this fun, wacky contraption maker app. Common Sense Education suggests using the app to augment lessons on cause-and-effect, sequences of action, problem-solving, or systems thinking. You can also use it as part of a creative thinking/problem-solving center for students in grades 3-8.  



Collaboratively create with your colleagues via Kapsul. This platform allows users to organize and share images, videos, and text and can be used for classroom and professional development presentations. Art teachers can use it to gather images for a unit and to curate an exhibition of student artwork.  



My 17-year-old flute duet friend introduced me to this music notation program which allowed me to edit and create scores for our performances at the public library. It’s free and easy to use for upper level students who want to compose music to enhance classroom projects. Music teachers can use it to create arrangements and teaching materials for their classrooms.  



I had plenty of fun making “Creativity in Motion” with OSnap, an easy to use app that features time-lapse and stop motion photography. Using an iPad and lots of buttons, I created my first animated film! (To improve my skills, I reminded myself that smaller movements are better.) With OSnap, students of all ages can immediately start snapping photographs, experimenting, and learning! Integrate it with any subject. It’s so motivating, students will want to learn more.  Share their final projects on your school or class website.   



I still save articles, videos, and blog posts with Evernote, but Pocket is another service to save content. Use the explore page to search and discover information about a specific topic. As you explore, a list of related topics appears at the top to advance your search. Here’s what popped up after I searched growth mindset.  


Whether you use Google for collaboration or Plickers for assessment, there are countless edtech tools to enhance every teacher toolkit. 

4 Ways to Communicate with Your New Students Before the First Day of School

Welcome new students wtih these strategies


“I haven’t received my ‘welcome back’ letter yet.”


With many weeks remaining before the official start of school, my young friend was worried about not receiving her official back-to-school letter. Her words made me realize the power simple letters/notes have in building a positive home-school connection. Students look forward to mail personally addressed to them, and the “official” letter builds excitement for the new year.  


Here are four ways to create a sense of classroom community before the first day of school.

  1. Update the “old-fashioned” letter with a QR code. Make the letter talk with an audio QR code of you reading the letter. Add back-to-school tips, fun information about you, and a reminder to keep reading before the first day. I recorded in Audacity, saved the audio link in Dropbox, and created the QR code with QR Code Generator.

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  1.  Hold a welcome back team-based Twitter chat session. Share books each teacher read over the summer, school news, and what to expect in the upcoming year. Email transcripts of the sessions to families that don’t use Twitter.  
  1. Post a 10-day countdown on your school’s website. Each day, post a “get ready for school” tip. For example, “There are only ten day until school starts. How many books have you read this summer? If you read one each remaining day, you’ll have read ten books this summer. Wow!”  
  1. Leverage the popularity of webcomics, graphic novels and comics with a back-to-school comic strip. Canva’s comic strip maker is easy to use and has free images, templates, and quick tutorials. It’s a great way to introduce yourself and make your students laugh. Post the comic strip on your school/classroom website, email it to families, or mail it in the form of a comic strip postcard:
Back-to-school comic strip


The beginning of school is exciting for everyone. After a summer spent recharging, it’s a time of clean slates, optimism, and nervous energy – the perfect time to start building a positive home-school connection. Letting students know you’re looking forward to meeting them sets a welcoming tone for a fresh, new start. 


Teaching Advice and Content Resources for the Upcoming School Year

A fresh start:  Back to School


All sorts of things come up when teachers think about the first day of school and the start of another year:  a fresh start, school policies, colleagues, preparations, etc. Many of us dream about being unprepared on the first day. I still dream about “forgetting” to meet with my reading groups.


It doesn’t matter how many years we have taught, stress is always present. As another school year approaches, think about the big picture:  work-life balance.  

  • Stay focused on the students and their learning, but turn to colleagues for help and support.
  • Know when to take a break and when to let go of things you can’t control.
  • Continue to learn. Resilient teachers try new things and adapt to change.
  • Take time to care for yourself. Rest, exercise, and eat right.  When it comes to health, these factors are essential.
  • Make time for friends and family – social time is equally important for health and well-being.  

Socrates once wrote, "I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think."

Remember these words and other inspirations as you head into the new school year. Framing what you do as a teacher in a new way can sometimes free you from stress and empower you to try new approaches to your craft.


Best wishes for a successful and well-balanced school year.

6 Great Ice Breaker Activities for the First Week of School

Build community in your classroom with these ice breaker activities

The first day of school can be overwhelming for many students (and teachers). Despite new supplies and the promise of seeing friends, many students are nervous, and some are even a little scared. What can we do to alleviate some of these first week of school jitters?


While it takes time for everyone to get to know each other, the first week of school should include activities that focus on welcoming students, making them feel comfortable, and building a sense of community in your classroom.

  1. Use a spinner, a container filled with numbers, or a die. Whatever number appears after a spin, draw, or toss is the number of things the chosen student has to share about her/himself. Do this with students each day during the first week of school.  
  1. Add humor. It is a great stress reliever. Share a funny picture book to develop a positive connection on the first day. A classroom filled with laughter is a classroom with positive energy.
  1. Hearing soothing music when students arrive provides a welcoming atmosphere. As the year progresses, have students select different songs to begin and end each day or create “theme” songs for your classroom.  
  1. Create a “Getting-to-Know You” survey. Have students post and share their responses on a bulletin board. Information from the survey helps students get to know each other and helps you discover their reading and project interests. Sample questions include:
  • If you could be an animal, what animal would you be?  
  • What do you like to do away from school?
  • What do you want to learn this year?  
  • If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
  1. Examining the role of “favorite things” is a creative way for children to express their interests and feelings.  Ask children to think of (or bring in) an object that is special to them. How does the object represent their interests? What impact does it have on their lives?  
  1. Take student movement breaks. Like children, I have trouble sitting still, so movement helps me focus. We all need movement to perform at our very best – especially during the procedural-filled first week of school. Simple stretches and tossing a nerf ball while asking and answering questions are easy ways to integrate movement with learning. 

6 Classroom Design Ideas for Improving Student Engagement

Classroom design affects students in countless ways


Arranging classrooms for optimum student engagement is like preparing successful meals. It involves having a plan (yes, I have a weekly meal plan – I can’t wing anything), choosing meals that work well for you and your family, and trying new recipes to expand your repertoire.  


Here are 6 classroom design ideas for teachers to plan and build a classroom environment that enhances student learning.  

  1. What features of the classroom do you use most? Technology? An interactive whiteboard? A chalkboard, etc. Set up the classroom to support your instructional practices. Small group discussion lends itself to a u-shaped seating formation where everyone can see each other. Groups of desks or large tables work well for projects and collaboration. A combination of the two formations is ideal with opportunities for students to visit other spaces such as the class library, reading nook, computer stations, creativity center, etc.  
  1. Standing desks are helpful options for both teachers and students, but simply letting students move around within workstations improves engagement.  
  1. Natural lighting is important. I’ve taught in many less than ideal settings (closets, hallways, stairwell nooks, mobile “classrooms” on a cart). One thing I valued most was the presence of natural light. Harsh fluorescent lighting is difficult for many students – and teachers. Green landscape views through a classroom window are a breath of fresh air and restore both teachers’ and students’ mental energy.  
  1. The best bulletin boards display student work or assist students with what they’re learning. In fact, heavily decorated classrooms may affect children’s ability to focus and learn. Researchers Anna V. Fisher, Karrie E. Godwin and Howard Seltman of Carnegie Mellon University found that “children were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed.”
  1. Add a few therapy or yoga balls. This simple strategy can have a large impact in improving focus. Let students try different types of seating options to see what works best for them.  
  1. In their book, The Growth Mindset, authors Annie Brock and Heather Hundley share many ideas for how to convey a growth-mindset through classroom arrangement. Three of their suggestions follow:  

“Students are situated collaboratively in groups or in an arrangement from which groups can easily be assembled. Wheeled furniture can be a great classroom addition.”

“Teacher’s desk is up front and easily accessible; better yet, there’s no desk and the teacher moves throughout the classroom during the lesson to physically invite questions and demonstrate availability; teacher work is done in designated landing spaces.”

There are “extra whiteboard space or lapboards so students can collaborate and work out ideas, or a ‘quiet area’ where students can use noise-canceling headphones to focus on individual task.”


Classroom design affects students in countless ways. How do you make the most of your classroom space?

July at If Then Creativity

Hello everyone. Whether you’re reading If Then Creativity to augment your teacher toolbox or to cultivate self-care routines, thank you for joining us this past month.


July’s messages explored ways to assess and analyze our teaching approaches, while taking care to avoid burnout. Experimenting with new teaching tools and techniques helps us grow as teachers, as does finding positive ways to handle challenges and stress. Staying motivated and challenged isn’t about following someone else’s advice, it’s about finding what works best for you. With the right “tools”, we are better equipped to inspire and teach others.  


Assess your teaching practices and outlook with the following posts:  

Improve, organize and prepare with these posts:


If you're looking for new ways to develop professionally and connect with colleagues, download our Book Study Tool Kit. Professional development does not have to be a formal, dry exercise- it can be a lot of fun and our Book Study Tool Kit provides a great framework to both have fun and learn new teaching approaches at the same time.  A collaborative book discussion is an important way to engage in critical conversation, enhance classroom repertoire, and increase student learning. 


Download our Reading Guide and Bookmarks for Thinking, Discussion, and Reflection.


Professional Learning: The Book Study Tool Kit
Professional Learning Book Discussion.pd
Adobe Acrobat Document 312.5 KB

Here are 6 articles about teaching/education/learning I read in July.  

If Then Creativity: Our Mission, Helping Teachers and Students Thrive

 Intellectual curiosity and personal development among young students.

Thank you readers of If Then Creativity for learning from and with us.  


If Then Creativity exists for you – teachers and parents.  We work hard to understand your needs with customized educational resources and personalized consultative services that nurture the gifts inherent in every child.


We hold fast to a child-centered learning approach that embraces the unique abilities of teachers to generate success beyond test results.  


Our programs inspire deeper intellectual curiosity and personal development among young students.  

We are:

  • Creative – with lesson plans and online resources that deliver pragmatism with an openness to creativity and individuality
  • Responsive – providing teacher training and professional development sessions on a wide range of subjects
  • Experienced – with a unique approach that tailors learning content to diverse learning styles and abilities
  • Accessible – available to interact on a personal level
  • Thoughtful – with meticulously and thoughtfully crafted resources
  • Efficient – building educational products that empower educators to identify and elicit the diverse, inherent gifts of young students, inspiring growth, intellectual curiosity and the development of the whole child

Thank you for joining us in our mission to create quality educational services and products. We look forward to continuing our work with you.

Contact Information

Debra Lemieux

If Then Creativity



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