Curriculum, Instructional Tools

Classroom Hack: Table Captains for Small Group Work

Small group-work: on the surface, it seems like a fantastic way to foster inquiry, bolster peer-to-peer interaction, and give students a taste of those real-world skills of collaboration, problem-solving, and communication.

But, as any substitute teacher will tell you, small group-work does not just happen. In fact, giving students a set of directions and letting them at it is most certainly a recipe for not-total-success. There are a lot of implicit assumptions on the teachers’ end: that students will know when they’ve reached the end of the task; that students will have all of the resources to finish the task; that all students will contribute and roughly equally; that all students will know exactly what needs to get done and a general idea of how. And the list goes on.

And, if your students are anything like I was when I was 11, if any of the above assumptions prove faulty, soon the task at hand, the collaboration, and any form of focus will fly across the room faster than a spitball.

So what to do?

First, let’s cover the bases. In order for group-work to…work, the following is a quick to-do list for teachers:


…come to think of it, this is probably an applicable framework for introducing anything in the classroom. But, I digress.

One of the problems with giving directions and letting students have at it is that students likely need more support when it comes to role definition. It’s unfair to constantly assume one student will “step up” as a leader. This is typically an extroverted student who perhaps doesn’t always particularly like the role, and it also makes it ever-challenging for introverted or more timid students to take on a role, which they may actually love!

Enter Table Captains: an equitable way for students to practice leadership roles, either as designated leaders or active followers.

How it works

Here’s the gist:

  • Students are divided into groups of 3-6
  • Each group has 1 Table Captain
  • Table Captains have extra responsibilities are in charge of keeping the team in line with respect to task completion; timing; and organization

A Table Captain is in charge of all materials and ensures the small groups stay on task within the given time frame. The philosophy is that students without a strong focus or drive tend to rapidly dissipate. With a clear leader in the group, students know who to turn to when they have questions about the task at hand. Additionally, when students have a leadership role, they are more likely to be invested in the tasks at hand, and ultimately, the learning at hand. This strategy also allows students to practice speaking to one another, instead of simply just to a teacher. In doing so, you’ll find students are learning from one another, and really… isn’t that kind of what we’re going for here? (Nod your head)

The Goods

Below is a sample Table Captain Task Page:.

Table Captain supplies in my (Grade 5-7) classroom typically include Post-Its + Folder with all necessary articles and Table Captain task page. I announce Table Captains the night before so students who may need (or appreciate) it can mentally prepare for being a leader.

Putting it all together

In order for students to understand how this works, follow the above to-do list:

  • EXPLAIN IT (have a conversation with your class about leadership opportunities)
  • EXPLAIN IT AGAIN DIFFERENTLY (show students a Table Captain sheet. Ask them what roles a Table Captain seems to hold)
  • MODEL IT (use a fellow teacher, aid, student, etc. and show, in a condensed version, of what this process looks like. For real. Do it.)
  • PRACTICE IT (give a sample task to the class. Offer students the chance to demonstrate to the class, if they’re confident)
  • DO IT (give a real task! Let it rip!)
  • COACH IT (wander about while students engage in Table Captain tasks. Check in with your Captains after class. Have them send you a quick email, including what went well and what was challenging– 1 sentence each)
  • PRACTICE IT AGAIN (keep doing it! You won’t know how it’s going until you’ve done it more than once)
  • SUPPORT IT (check in with your Table Captains. Be consistent. Even if it seems to not work the first few weeks, give it a chance. Don’t judge it until students have been Table Captains at least 3 times. That’s approximately 12 rounds. Data is important!)
  • REFINE IT (something work better or differently in your classroom? Get creative! Own it, customize it, rock it.)
Curriculum, Instructional Tools

Make January Awesome!


January is a peculiar time of year: almost reminiscent of the excited energy of September but without feeling nearly as refreshed. As soon as they’ve clinked a glass of bubbly into the new year, Teacher Brains shoot to the ambitious list of projects, grading, materials prep, research, and lists of pleasure reading… all relatively untouched. But, odds are the sleep’s been better and Netflix goals have been met, and there’s a sense of calm -even confidence- hovering like a halo.

January = Entering Rejuvenation Zone!

January, too, can be a wonky time for students. For some, it means leaving the safety and security of their school homes. For others, it means relishing in a break from their daily grind and soaking up some rays. For some, it means endless boredom and/or too many video games. And for some, it’s a time to set new goals and think about how they can improve in the new year.

Ultimately, for both teachers and students, the return from winter break is an opportunity.

It’s a time to think about what norms (the good and the bad) have been cultivated. It might be time to ask some hard questions, such as:

  • What systems do you have in place in your classroom? Which are awesome, and which could be tweaked or trashed?
  • What’s on the walls? Is it relevant and inspiring; or just filling space?
  • Have you been consistent with praise, feedback, and discipline?

And, above all, it’s a fantastic (even necessary) time to cultivate community, re-establish norms, and work with your class to ensure a productive, happy spring in your classroom.

Here are some 4 ideas to kick-off community-building in January:


Classroom report cards.

Not sure about what’s going well and what’s not (and therefore, what to keep or scrap)? Ask! Student input is valuable because it reminds students that their thoughts and participation are essential to classroom culture (it is!). Some ideas for a classroom report card should include a reflection on what students like, what students would change, how they might characterize it, and what their individual input has been. This activity is huge in tone-setting for the second half of the year, re-establishing expectations, and catching sloppy or bad habits before they start.

Speed Dating

Students want to talk about their break! They want to engage with people around them, and sometimes they need a bit of guidance as to what and how much is appropriate to share, as well as when. Meet students with this need with a contained activity. Generate 5-7 questions that seem appropriate, bearing in mind some students may see much more instability during their school breaks and there can be a vast difference in decadence over break. Avoid asking students questions that could further divide them, in favour of questions that can unite them back at school.

Here are a few to get you started:

  • What is one thing that made you laugh on your break?
  • Share about a time that was boring on your break.
  • Tell us about one person you interacted with on your break.
  • What is the best thing you ate on your break?
  • What time did you usually go to bed/wake up on your break?
  • What did you miss most/least about school?

Using these questions, arrange students in a couple of groups of 2 concentric circles. Students on the inside of the circle will face out, while students on the outside will face inward. Students pair up and have 30-seconds to 1-minute each to answer the question. You can have students interview one another and jot notes, or complete it verbally. Speed dating is a great, simple activity for students to tune into one another and see each other as critical voices. If you teach a class after lunch/recess, this is a great way to cull the energy.

Goal Set!

Some students may naturally see the start of a new semester as an opportunity to improve habits and embrace a fresh start, but most will likely be preoccupied with other things that come with the start of a new year. Give students the time and space to think about their successes in the first semester. If you did a goal-setting activity in September, this is a great time to revisit, celebrate, and revise!  

If goal-setting is new to your student, you might introduce them to SMART Goal-setting, an effective template for achieving goals:

Photo from

Goal-setting can happen in a wide variety of formats, but students are more likely to be excited on their goal if they can present and share their goals publicly with pride. Make a public space in the classroom or hallway for goals and create a time for students to present their goals outloud, either in small groups, or to the whole class. Get creative and think about what works best with your group of kids! A few ideas to consider:

  • Head-Hands-Heart Goal: Have students set a Head Goal (an academic goal), Hands Goal (a skill-based goal), and a Heart Goal (community-related). Write these on body cut-outs and hang them up!
  • 5-Finger Goals: have students trace their hands and come up with 5 goals they’ll work towards this semester
  • Post-It Subject Goals: If you teach multiple subjects with one class, create a sign for each subject and have students write a goal for each subject. Make sure they sign their name!
  • Doodle Goals: This fun and free resource from The Math Giraffe emphasizes the process of goal-setting and affords structure.

Goal Doodle.jpg
Goal Setting AMAZINGNESS from The Math Giraffe

  • Goal Journals: Have students generate 1-3 goals in their personal journal, reflecting on why they want to achieve these goals and what they’ll have to do (habits!) in order to achieve them. This is a great way exercise to encourage students to frequently revisit and document their progress towards their goals.

It is worth noting all goal-setting should not be a one-and-done activity. It is important to revisit goals (first week of the month works well) and chart progress.


It’s probable students operated far out of the norm of their usual school routine while on holidays– including what they ate, activity levels during the day, bedtimes (and no alarm clocks). Getting back to early wake-ups, a regimented schedule, homework (oh, those mean teachers!), and perhaps a junk food detox is tough for kids! By the end of the first week, kids (and maybe teachers) are pooped! To reinforce that a classroom is more than just a place of post-holiday-break torture, highlight community with some fun at the start or end of class!

Minute-To-Win-It challenges are a fantastic way to get students moving, talking, interacting, and even having a bit of fun! Chica Circle offers some low-mess, minimal-prep, high-fun options with ample visuals and video tutorials (in case you’ve forgotten how to have fun ;):

Chica Circle’s Minute-to-Win-It Treasure Trove

Since all challenges are a minute, they also don’t take up too much class time, and I urge you to see these precious minutes as investments. When students feel connected, engaged, and supported, they are more likely to participate

However you decide to approach your January, embrace it. So rarely are we given the chance to reset, reinvest, and rejuvenate. Take full advantage and find that vigor that comes to naturally in September– it’s still in there somewhere 🙂

[Photo by Plush Design Studio on Unsplash]

Curriculum, Instructional Tools

UbD is A-OK with me!


I read once that you should never explain or offer a disclaimer for your own writing.

I’m also not one to always play by the rules.

And, so:

Disclaimer 1: I’m completely on-board with Understanding by Design. I’ve used this planning framework frequently and con gusto (though rarely to its full capacity– never took the time to write out an entire WHERETO in real life) in my own professional development as a teacher. I’ve also found it quite helpful to revise some of my old lesson plans to fit within UbD frameworks.

Disclaimer 2: I will always be intrigued by the critical perspective of any idea, no matter how wonderful it seems and how well it works for me. Call me a cynic! But a learned one, ever-inspired by curiosity and the pursuit of teaching excellence. 

This week, I’m thinking about Understanding by Design framework and lesson plans that follow this format. Need a refresher on what exactly UbD is? Read Chapter 1 (free) by its creators! Not into reading (what are you doing on this blog!?)? The lovely Avenues: The World School has the YouTube version of UbD champion, creator, author, and researcher Grant Wiggins himself.

Since I’m not actively in the classroom at the moment, I paged through a few lessons, which, as I said, are close-but-not-exactly in the UbD framework. As I worked through the UbD framework, I thought a little bit more about lesson plans that are drastically different than UbD (think- worksheets, prescribed activities with little flexibility, etc.). And, during this unit, I found myself naturally wondering:

  • Is there pedagogical opposition to UbD?
  • If so, why is UbD pedagogically opposed? (this excludes motivation-based resistance to UbD, aka- I’m too lazy excuses, and refers principally to educators/administrators who are aware of and not bought in to UbD)
  • Are there emerging alternatives or competing strategies to UbD?

After a brief internet search, I found several blog posts and personal opinion pieces critiquing UbD. I took a gander on beloved EBSCO, but couldn’t readily find a great deal of information on UbD critiques (much of the primary research is on a singular case study). Here’s a running list of the critiques I unearthed from the Interwebs:

UbD is a one size fits all for all subject areas.

-Shouldn’t the money and time for training teachers how to design a lesson using UbD be spent instead on deepening their understanding of content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge? teachers need support in upgrading and updating their knowledge of content and pedagogy. These are things that cannot be addressed by simply changing the curriculum or changing the way of preparing the lesson plan, much more its format.

-No empirical evidence exists that states UbD is effective

-teachers had a lot of difficulty in making a UbD-based plan

-appears to promote “teaching to the test”.

-I do not quarrel with the design steps laid out in Backward Design. My quarrel is with the sloganism. It is commonplace to begin any adventure by focusing on the outcome first.*

-The concern here is that in some quarters Backward Design is packaged and promoted as something new and innovative. There is nothing new about the concept of beginning the learning process with a clearly stated purpose and anticipated outcome for the learner.*

(* From the very entertaining and thorough blog of Dr Larry Creedon)

Perhaps the most compelling/cogent arguments I found were that it’s a time sensitive process and that there is a risk of teachers spending so much time with the process that it actually becomes less student-centered as a result. As a teacher, I have to admit that doing the ENTIRE process of UbD is cumbersome, and I’ve never been accountable to turn in lesson plans or even show evidence of my entire unit. Instead, it’s more of an encouraged process that we are given time for at the start of each semester. This looks like teaching teams coming together to get a big picture evidence of Steps 1 and 2, which include big ideas, essential and guiding questions, performance tasks (big projects and smaller assignments, as well as “Students will know” and “Students will be able to,” which are written as learning targets based on standards. This approach, I find, is quite sustainable and allows the planning to indeed be on the end in mind…which is exactly what it should be! If I were required to do this for each and every lesson, I’d likely burn out, focusing more on the final product (a lesson in a specific format) versus the process. The approach I’ve used also allows for a fair degree of flexibility and maneuverability.

I’m left wondering a few things:

  • When schools decide to implement UbD, what is the process of implementation? Is it every lesson plan? Are teachers held accountable for turning in a “portfolio” of all of their lessons?
  • What flexibility exists in a more rigid or traditional school with respect to UbD plans? Can a teacher readily pivot the curriculum, or are they “locked in” once they create a UbD unit plan?
  • Will we see empirical evidence on UbD soon? (a la Hatte’s comprehensive meta-analysis in Visible Learning)

When UbD is implemented in a school, what is the process? Does it come from administration? What is the teacher support? Is this often associated with a curriculum coach? (Here are many ways not to do it!)

[Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]