4 (not so obvious) Ways to Amp Up Your Instruction

You probably know the main components of a lesson. You may even be required to write them all down in your lesson plans. Whether it's a lesson you've created from scratch or a plan laid out in your curriculum's teacher manual, whether it's a lesson you've done every year since the beginning of everything (you know, an oldie but a goodie), or one that is fresh and new, these four ideas can help you teach it more effectively.

Check out these 4 (not so obvious) ways to give your instruction, especially your whole-group lessons, a boost!

I'm not here to list the obvious. These ideas may not be generic, but they are rooted in solid, effective teaching practice. Ready to amp up the way you teach?


One day a few years ago I lost my voice. Woke up and it just wasn't there. Too much work to make sub plans, so I trudged into school, not sure how I was going to get anything done with my class when my throat was raw and I couldn't talk.

It turned out to be one of the most productive days students had in awhile. And it wasn't because I gave them a bunch of work to do while I sat at my desk sipping hot tea. No, no. I just had to get a little creative with my delivery. I remember during my math mini-lesson, instead of verbally teaching, I wrote it on the doc camera for students to read. I couldn't write down every single thing I would have said, so I was forced to boil things down to what was really important.

I also gave more responsibility to students. Instead of me explaining how to work through a problem, I had a student take over. We instituted a simple set of signals to help communicate certain things: a ding of the bell meant to pause so I could point something out; a flash of the lights prompted students to check the screen for a written direction.

I'm not literally telling you to teach silently. But I do want you to make your words matter and to remember that an effective delivery doesn't always consist of you talking and students listening. I often catch myself rambling or taking a tangent too far and remind myself of that day when students learned a lot without me saying a thing.

BONUS TIP: Use the volume of your voice to your advantage. Don't get stuck thinking, "What I'm about to say is really important, so I better say it really loud to make sure everyone hears it." The key is to have students tuned into what you're about to say. Then you can say it in a calm voice. And sometimes, raise your voice, even when it's not necessary. The last thing you want is a colorless voice that becomes wallpaper.


You may already write objectives into your lesson plans, but do students ever know what the objective is at the outset of a lesson? Putting an objective into student-friendly language, and making it known to your class, does a few things. It shifts away from a "one single keeper of knowledge spewing forth information" mentality toward one in which everyone is heading in the same direction. Plus, having a student-friendly objective posted and visible gives you an anchor to refer back to, a measuring stick to check with, a reminder to what the focus should be.

I call these student-friendly lesson objectives learning targets. I start with a target symbol and then write the target as an "I can" statement that tells what the student should be able to do by the end of the lesson. For me, I've found learning targets to be most helpful when they are (1) simply said, and (2) actionable... where students can show to me and to themselves that they've hit the target.

BONUS TIP: A side benefit of using learning targets is the built-in focus it gives you as you move through a lesson. Still, sometimes there are other key moments to your plan you want to be sure to remember and to get right. I like to jot down a short list on a sticky-note of these points... sometimes just a trigger word or phrase for a certain transition or question I wanted to include. The sticky note serves as my little cheat-sheet to help me stay on track.


Oh, the dreadful, pointless question... "Does that make sense?" I'm as guilty as anyone for asking it, but what does it accomplish? We explain something to the class and then we ask them if it makes sense. The majority of students lack the self-confidence to admit in front of their peers that something doesn't make sense, and many students want to please you so badly that they will agree to anything. Let's try to cut down on how often we ask students if what we just said makes sense.

Instead, ask students to show you that something does indeed make sense, through a formative assessment. You might have students write/do/solve something with whiteboards/markers, or have students engage in a quick turn and talk while you circulate and listen in, or maybe use an exit slip.

BONUS TIP: Use your learning target to help you focus your "check-in" on what really matters to the lesson.


Routines have their place, don't get me wrong. But an element of unpredictability to a lesson creates instant engagement (or re-engagement). In a way that still makes sense to what's at the heart of the lesson, try to add something students wouldn't expect. It could be as simple as a different location where students sit (e.g. bring them to a gathering area on the floor; have them swap seats with someone halfway through; etc.), incorporating a unique task or scenario, or changing the way in which students perform a task (e.g. with a partner; in a notebook; through a drawing; etc.). We're often taught that a lesson's "hook" is a perfect spot to do something surprising in order to engage students. Let's just be sure that we don't assume that a tidy little hook will carry students' engagement through the entirety of the lesson on its own.

Be mindful of particular students who may not be as successful with the unexpected. Students who rely on order and predictability benefit from (and deserve) a "heads-up" about something that might throw them off track.

BONUS TIP: If everything about a lesson is unpredictable, your pacing and focus will suffer. Train students on certain procedures to help cut down on wasted time. For example, you might have a designated spot on your board, outlined with a rectangle, where the page number is posted of whatever textbook is being used during a particular lesson. Find lots of other time-saving tips in my Steal Back the Minutes! post.

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Let these ideas give your whole-group instruction a boost. And for easy, practical ways to differentiate your whole-group instruction, check out my post HERE.

How to Make an Escape Room for the Upper Elementary Classroom

I'm always looking for new, fun ways to have students learn and practice our standards. This year, the rise in popularity of escape rooms and escape classrooms really inspired me to figure out how they actually work in the elementary classroom. This post will help you get some ideas on how to make an escape room challenge for your 3-5 students!

Looking for classroom photos of my escape rooms in action? Click here for my Escape Room Tips & Tricks blog post.

Choosing the Right Theme

Something that you really have to think about when designing an escape room for the classroom is what theme would be appropriate and fun for elementary kids. Think about what your students are really into. Is there a mystery book series they really love that you can model an escape challenge after? I chose Emojis as the theme of my escape challenge.

Making it Work With Large Class Sizes

I'm not sure about you, but I'm not super excited about 30 kids running around the classroom looking for one clue. The way an escape room traditionally works (with one team), just won't work for a larger classroom. 

My solution is to use multiple teams, but change up the way they access clues.

I knew teams were the way to go, but I had to think really long and hard about how to make this work. If one team finds a clue, then the others are obviously going to see it before they even solve the puzzle. I had to consider all of the different ways that kids could get by without doing the work to pass the challenges.

I put all of my challenge envelopes in one place. In order to get from envelope to envelope, they have to solve puzzles by answering questions that are standard-aligned. They even have to answer an additional question to even be able to open the envelope.

In my escape challenges, only one team escapes. It's a race to be that team. I even have badges for the team that escapes first to wear after. You have to figure out a way where students won't share the answers or locations of the clues. My last clue is the only one that leads to an envelope they find - because once a team finds this clue, the game is over and the rest of the teams did not escape!

Activities for Classroom Escape Challenges

There are many different ways to make activities for an escape challenge. I recommend making 4-5 challenges, with small mini-challenges in between. I always put my mini-challenges on the outside of the envelopes, so that they have to do one more reading or math problem in order to even open the envelope.

Puzzle Pieces & Maps

One way to motivate students is to show where all of the teams are throughout the challenge. I use a map to do this. Each spot on the map corresponds with the envelope they're on.

In some of my games, I have students collect puzzle pieces. Completing their puzzle first means they're the first to escape. 

Cipher Wheels

Making a cipher wheel is simple, and you can easily find one to print online. The outer circle has capital letters, and the inner circle has lowercase letters. This makes it easier to align the letters without confusion. The wheel starts as A = a. An encryption key is needed to tell students the number of places they rotate the outer wheel. The place where the outer wheel lands is the key. In the example below, students solve math problems to determine how many times to rotate the outer wheel clockwise. Where the wheel lands gives them the letters they need to decrypt the code on the top of the page. I give them a table so that they can write the corresponding lowercase letters in, making it easier to substitute when they tackle the code.

Special Codes

A simple substitution code using a font is really easy to make, but it looks like you came up with a seriously cool code that they have to crack. All you have to do is write the letters out, then change them to a code font like the Pigpen Cipher Font. There are a lot of fun runic fonts to choose from as well.

Prepping Your Escape Room

When I designed mine, I used the following supplies for each game:
5 large manilla envelopes
1 letter envelope
A brass fastener, baggies, a few other misc. supplies (depending on which one we're doing)

That's 6 envelopes total for the entire escape challenge. I make a copy of each challenge for each group and put them all in the same folder.

Also, I don't include too much that needs to be cut. I limit this to one activity per challenge that involves cutting. Even with students to help, you don't need that many pieces to keep track of.


A big concern I had about escape rooms in the classroom was participation. It's so important to think ahead and plan what you're going to do if certain students really take over your challenge. It will happen with your high-fliers. They know the content well and the competitiveness of racing to escape first will drive them to do all of the work while their team watches.

I have a few suggestions for this:

Have students split the work for each challenge. That means that each challenge should have a number of questions that is more than how many kids are in the group.

Find a creative way to take students out of the game if you need to. I use "You've Been Kidnapped" cards that I give to students who are taking over the team and not letting others participate, or to disrupt a team that is racing past the other teams. They have to sit out in the "Emoji Den" for 5 minutes when I give them this card.

Lastly, have a place where all students can write answers and the codes. Make sure to check these as they go to make sure they are using them. I designed mine as a booklet where they keep track of the emoji codes and the answers to the quick questions on the envelope.

My Escape Challenges

My Favorite Fraction Lesson: Decomposing Fractions

Call me crazy, but I absolutely LOVE teaching fractions!! Many upper grade teachers I know dread tackling fractions each year. NOT ME!! It's something I always look forward to. As I prepare to teach fractions to my 5th graders this year, I thought I would share my favorite fraction lesson... DECOMPOSING FRACTIONS!!

When students are in the primary grades, developing number sense and learning about place value, teachers spend a lot of time showing students how to decompose numbers. This same strategy is just as important when teaching upper grade students about fractions. 

In my classroom, I like to start with a hands-on approach. I like students to be able to take a fraction, break it into pieces, and manipulate those pieces to see how they come back together in different ways. I have found that it's easiest to start with fractions that are equivalent to one-whole. Here is an activity that I use to get students started. Students manipulate the fraction pieces to make different combinations that equal their desired fraction. Then they record the combinations as they go.

After practicing with fractions that are equivalent to one-whole, I have students take away one piece from each set of fractions. So 5/5 will now be 4/5. Then they manipulate these new fractions and continue to decompose and record different ways to make a given fraction

So, why is this my favorite fractions lesson?? Once my students spend a couple days breaking down fractions, EVERYTHING ELSE comes so much EASIER to them. Adding and subtracting fractions just makes sense. Students no longer make the mistake of adding both the numerator and the denominator when adding two fractions. They automatically know that the denominator stays the same. Decomposing fractions also helps later with converting mixed numbers to improper fractions and vice versa. With a solid foundation in these concepts and skills, students are ready to move on to the more complicated standards. 

Here is a copy of the activity that I use when introducing this standard. I copy it back to back, and the fraction strips match up nicely. This activity is part of my Fraction Printables resource on TpT. However, you can also find a link to it HERE to download for FREE!!!

If you are looking for more fraction printables and activities, be sure to check out this comprehensive collection in my Teacher Shop!!

I hope that this lesson will help you and your students fall in love with fractions as much as I have!! Enjoy and let the fraction FUN begin!!