Author Archives: Sarah Benes

White Folx, We have work to do

The last few months have been trying. People are dying. Racism is killing Black people. Everywhere we look, from the disproportionate number of Black people dying from COVID-19, to the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Flyod and Breonna Taylor, we see the toll that racism has on Black people in this country. 

As White women, we recognize that we have a responsibility to do the work of addressing racism in this country and addressing how our “whiteness” has contributed to continued racism. There are some difficult truths to face when doing this work such as the fact that our country was founded by White people who believed that Black and Indigenous people were not equal. That many of our systems and institutions were built on this premise and continue to perpetuate oppression and systemic racism. We have to explore the way that oppression has and continues to impact the lives of Black people in this country. Whiteness created these systems and Whiteness has to be a part of breaking them down. 

We have to explore the role of Whiteness in perpetuating these systems, the work of finding ways in our lives to dismantle and disrupt racist practices, policies and structures, the work of educating ourselves on how to be responsible and accountable allies. 

The work of being antiracist

The work of examining ourselves, our teaching, our school systems and our communities.  

We need to go beyond doing better, we need to undo. 

We are inviting White educators who are interested in engaging in these difficult and uncomfortable conversations, who want to dig in and do the work, to join us. DM us on Twitter (@sarahbenes12, @hollyalperin), leave a comment on the blog or email us ( We don’t know exactly what it will entail but we will read, listen, discuss, challenge ourselves and each other, and grow. 

Holly and I are both on our own journeys. We are not experts. We are making mistakes. We are learning.

We hope you will join us in this critical work. 


Wisconsin is full-steam ahead for #Skillsbasedhealthed

Two claps and a Rick Flair  . . . WOOOOOO!


This was the attention grabber Dr. Sally Jones used in our skills-based health education pre-conference session at the Wisconsin Best Practices Academy in July. I don’t know why but it has stuck with me and will always remind me of this amazing conference! (here is a link to the Rick Flair Wooo on YouTube in case you are interested)


One of the best parts of presenting at and/or attending conferences is the positive energy and enthusiasm that everyone has. I never fail to leave a conference energized, empowered and excited to continue the important work we are all doing.


There are so many great things happening in Wisconsin – they are working hard to get skills-based health education throughout the state. It was a pleasure to watch their training cadre, a group of skilled educators who are leading the way for other teachers, present their work – skills-based health ed is going strong in WI and it was inspiring to see how these teachers have taken the foundation and made it their own. Some people you want to follow on Twitter if you aren’t already (members of the cadre):  Mary Wentland @prideandjoymary, Deborah Tackmann @deborahtackmann, Meg Whaley @13_meggy, Kaitlyn Bloemer @bloemerPE.


Not only that, but Holly and I had around 45 educators who spent 6 hours (on a beautiful summer day) at our pre-con session diving into all things skills-based! We were so impressed with the ideas, commitment, and passion these educators had to skills-based health education and for helping their students to be healthy and well.


We were so happy to see many of those same educators (yes, they actually came back to see us two days in a row!) and some new people join us for a shorter, one hour session on assessment. This seems to be an area that many people are curious about and find challenging – especially thinking about how to translate performance-based assessments into grades beyond rubric criteria. Even if you weren’t able to join us in Wisconsin, we wanted to share the presentations with you and are including a link to some of the resources that we used. To access the presentations and resources from Wisconsin, click here. We are happy for you to use and distribute the resources but please give us attribution!


More to come soon . . .

Getting outside of your comfort zone with skills-based health education

When transitioning to a skills-based approach, you need to be willing to take a step back and rethink your current practice . . . we know  . . . this is a lot to ask! However, consider this quote:

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve got”

~Henry Ford

You may be thinking . . . but what I’ve got is good! Why do I have to change? Why can’t I just take what I have and integrate skills? These are all great questions that we are often asked when we work with teachers so we thought we would address them in a blog post.

Consider another idea:

“Just because it isn’t broken, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement”

(no specific attribution here).

As educators we are learners and our teaching is constantly evolving. So too should our curriculum! Transitioning to a skills-based approach provides an opportunity for you to look at your curriculum with fresh eyes. To take a step back and identify areas for improvement and for growth. Being willing to rethink or at least reconsider your curriculum isn’t a reflection of its quality or efficacy; rather it is a reflection of your willingness to be open to change and thoughtful evaluation of your practice.

It is not easy to step back, especially since, if you have heard us present, it is pretty much guaranteed to mean that you will need to let some things go (cue Elsa). In our experience, you do need to let some things go  . . . and again . . . we know this is hard. We all have the activities that we love to do and that the students enjoy but these might always be what the students need. We have relatively little time allotted to health education. Limited to time to set students up with the skills and functional information they need in order to lead healthy lifestyles. Their time with you is precious – we need to make sure every minute is spent helping them develop skills, knowledge and confidence to leave your classroom and go out and make health enhancing choices. This is why we ask you to be intentional, thoughtful and critical about your curriculum.

In our experience, it is easier when you can commit to a “blank slate” approach as you work through a backward design approach to lead you to a purposeful curriculum designed to meet the specific needs of your students. Once you have worked through the process, THEN you can figure out where what you are already do fits, what you need to modify and yes . . . what you might have to let go. We promise that in the end, it will be worth it! But don’t just take our word for it .  . . here is a quote from a recent blog post by the amazing Andy Milne (@carmelhealth):

this does not work

(For more on Andy’s perspectives and ideas, follow him on Twitter and check out his blog:

Committing to moving to a skills-based approach is a big step. We won’t sugarcoat it – it is a big step that takes a lot of work but in the end, we 100% guarantee that it will be worth it! Our next post will take a sneak peek into research we are conducting looking into what skills-based educators have seen since they have made the transition!


Skills-Based Health Ed on the Jersey Shore

Holly and I returned home today after an amazing 2 days down in New Jersey for the 99th NJAHPERD conference. The fabulous beachside location was not only a welcoming venue for learning; it also provided fresh ocean air during a walk on the beach, an opportunity to see NYC and even some whales made an appearance – all while enjoying a beautiful sunset!

The real treats, aside from our invitation to present three sessions, were the New Jersey hospitality, getting to know some NJ #healthedheroes and sharing our passion – skills-based health education!

Our three sessions included:

  1. The Case for Skills-Based Health Education
  2. Mental Health in a Skills-Based Program
  3. Designing Authentic, Performance-Based Assessments

In this blog post we will provide a brief overview of each session with links to to the slides and handouts!

Let us know your feedback and tell us how we can help you continue to #switchtoskills and advance your #skillsbasedhealthed practice!

“Knowledge alone is not power. The sharing of our knowledge is when knowledge becomes powerful” ~Rich Simmonds

The Case for Skills-Based Health Education

This session focused on providing support for a skills-based approach. We wanted to provide participants with some evidence that can be used to “make the case” for skills-based and then we dove into the components of a skills-based approach. In the PPT, you’ll find 5 reasons for skills-based health education and an overview of core components. We are working on creating a resource that pulls together references and resources supporting SBHE – stay tuned!

Link to PPT slides:

Link to handout:

Mental Health in a Skills-Based Program

This session discussed ways to think through functional information for the topic of mental health and ways that you can teach mental health through skills. Since information is not the focus in a skills-based program, we wanted to show how you could take a current topic and align it with skills of the NHES. The handout has valid and reliable resources related to adolescent mental health and also some sites for curriculum ideas and implementation.

Link to PPT slides:

Link to handout:

Designing Meaningful Authentic Assessment

For our final session, we provided guidance on designing authentic, performance based assessments in skills-based health education. We discussed the need to shift to students demonstrating what they can do and apply what they know and this really requires some form of project-based assessment. We also showed how to integrate the NHES with the New Jersey state frameworks to create your unit objectives!

Link to PPT:

Link to handouts:

The “How” Part 1: Your Curriculum

Are you on board with skills-based health education but wondering what your next steps should be? Have you started to transition but are getting stuck? If so, the next few blog posts are for you!

After getting many questions about the “how to” of skills-based, we are creating a series of posts to help you feel more comfortable with the “how to” of skills-based health education. We are going to start with the curriculum!

Why do we start with curriculum? Well . . . in the many years that Holly and I have been doing this, we have learned that having your written curriculum aligned with the NHES, with the skills “on top” and with your unit objectives planned out makes it much for likely for you to have a successful transition to the approach. It doesn’t matter if you are looking at your own class or your K-12 curriculum – the steps are the same. In this post, we will run through the basics and provide some tips. It’s a little long but worth the read!

TIP: Even though it is hard, we strongly recommend that you do not try to retrofit your current curriculum into a skills-model. We completely understand the urge…but it never works quite right!

If you can go through this process with an open-mind and “clean slate”, it will go much more smoothly. We promise that you will be able to fit many of your activities back into the curriculum once you have completed the process!

Step 1: What do YOUR students need?

Our students are our top priority. It is critical that we are constantly asking ourselves – what do my students need in order to be healthy? What issues are they facing? What do we want them to be able to do with this new learning?

Take some time to brainstorm. Look at data, talk to various stakeholders, ask students, use your experience and create a list of what your students need. This list can include topics, skills and specific behaviors. For now, anything goes! Once you have your list, set this aside and then move on to step 2. You will revisit this list later in the process.

Step 2: The Framework

We suggest creating a template that looks something like this:



List the grades down the side

List the NHES Skills across the top
NHES Skill
(Analyzing Influences)
NHES Skill
NHES Skill
(Interpersonal Communication)
NHES Skill

(grade 6)


(grade 7)

We feel that putting the skills “on top” like this is important for a couple of reasons:

  • It clearly puts the emphasis on the skills & provides a frame for each unit
  • It sets you up for skill development within the unit
  • Allows you to where content fits across various skills

We also suggest starting by matching one topic within one skill. Once you get more comfortable you can add multiple topics under a skill. Start out simple and then add as you go! However, when you set up your units in this way, you will begin to see that certain topics will naturally “fit” with certain skills.

We do not recommend keeping the topics as the focus and integrating more than one skill within the topics. In this model, it is less likely that students will develop the skills to proficiency – you won’t get the same depth or the same levels of skill performance.

Step 3: NHES Performance Indicators

Next, you will look at standards 2-8 of the NHES (standard 1 is the “topic” standard, it isn’t a skill). Decide which performance indicators you will teach from each standard and in which grade. You want to make sure that you cover all performance indicators within each grade span though don’t feel like you need to cover every skill (or performance indicator) every year. It is unlikely that you have time for that.

Another tip: For the skills of decision-making, goal setting and advocacy – you’ll cover all performance indicators each time you teach these skills. Each of these skills, and the associated performance indicators are all part of the process of actually implementing the skill.

In our experience around 4 skills per year is usually a good fit. It is OK to have some “blank” boxes in your chart. By mapping out which performance indicators and which skills are taught each year you will begin to see a flow or progression. You are also able to revisit and reinforce previous learning. When implemented, your students will appreciate a thoughtful progression… though they may not realize it.

After this step, your framework might looking something like this (note the performance indicator numbers):

Analyzing Influences
Accessing Valid & Reliable Info, Products, and Services
Goal Setting
Interpersonal Comm.
Grade 6
Grade 7
Review Decision Making, but not formally assessed.

Step 4: Match Topics and Skills

Here is where we revisit the topics you listed out in step 1. You will take those topics (in blue below) and put them “under” the skills wherever you think they fit best. Remember there is no right answer here! You should go with your gut and the needs of your students. You can always tweak it later but we have found that teachers know the best fit!

Your framework now looks like this:

Analyzing Influences
Accessing Valid & Reliable Info, Products, and Services
Goal Setting
Interpersonal Comm.
Grade 6
Social media
Nutrition and physical activity
Texting and driving
Grade 7
Impact of media on multiple health behaviors
Stress & Mental Health
Dimensions of wellness
Alcohol use and other drugs

Step 5: Integrated Objectives

Each box inside your framework is now a unit! Your next step is to create your unit objectives. Start with the stem of the Performance Indicators and then integrate the topics. For example, the unit objectives for interpersonal communication in 7th grade would be:

By the end of this unit, students will be able to:

  • Apply effective verbal and nonverbal communication skills to enhance health in situations relating to alcohol and other drugs.
  • Demonstrate refusal and negotiation skills that avoid alcohol or other drug use.

While this step may seem a little tedious, it is actually really important. As you continue in the process, it will help you develop assessments that evaluate your intended outcomes, stay focused within each unit, avoid activities that do not support the “end game” for each unit and help you build purposeful and effective units to meet the needs of your students.

We will end this post here! We hope you found this information helpful! A good way to sum up the first 5 steps of the process:

“If you don’t know where you are going,
you’ll end up someplace else.”
― Yogi Berra

Our next post will cover the remaining steps of the curriculum development process – developing assessments through lesson planning!

Let us know any tips or additional questions you have in the comments!

Getting through the implementation dip: Find and hold onto your inspiration!

Holly and I just finished a 2 day skills-based health education workshop with some amazing educators in Maine. People left feeling excited, energized  . . . and a little overwhelmed. Making a significant change in the way you are teaching can be a daunting task, no matter how committed, passionate and ready you are! This can be particularly hard due to the “implementation dip” that we know occurs after learning new material.

The implementation dip refers to the phenomenon of the fact that you leave a professional development feeling confident and ready to make a change but then . . . when you go to implement your new learning, it isn’t as clear or as easy as it was in your head after you left the conference. In other words, you experience a dip. You begin to try out your new ideas and confidence drops a bit. Or you weren’t able to get started right after the PD and now you aren’t really sure where you should start or even how to start. This is the implementation dip.

implementation dip

The good news is, this is temporary – and you can move through it. Not only that, once you move through this dip, you often come out more confident in your new learning. Hold steady – it is important to not let this dip prevent you from moving forward! With all new learning and trying a new strategy comes bumps in the road. Just like we tell our students – you just keep trying, you will get there. Whether you recently attended a PD or are pulling from an event you attended before and are now trying to make the shift to a skills-based approach and are hitting some bumps along the way – read on!

One thing you need to remember is that change is hard and often uncomfortable because we are pushing ourselves outside of where we have become comfortable. This means you may feel overwhelmed, have lessons flop, look at an assessment you gave students and think “well – that didn’t go quite as planned”. You may find that you have trouble getting student buy in at first because they are unfamiliar with your new approach, or have difficulties convincing a co-worker about this new(er) way of teaching health. Don’t get discouraged!


Here are some strategies to overcome the implementation dip:

  • Find Your Inspiration – No matter what obstacles you face – it is key to find your inspiration and to leverage the support of your #SkillsBasedHealth #HealthEd community to keep moving forward!
  • Write Down your Goal/Plan – Maybe your inspiration is your students, your own professional growth, the approach itself, the challenge of making a change . . . whatever it is, write it down! We know from research that writing down and intention makes up far more likely to achieve it. Stick it somewhere that you can see it often so that it can serve as a reminder to keep going!
  • Seek out Support – There is no need to suffer alone. Reach out to us, join (or create) a learning network of teachers who are embracing a skills-based approach, review the materials, use social media such as twitter, Facebook, or Voxer to ask for support. There are lots of people willing to help and offer ideas.
  • Try something new – Sometimes the hardest part of getting started is to just DO IT. Be willing to be open with yourself and your students. Let them know you are trying something a little different and that you are all in this together. They will feed off of your confidence
  • Keep Skills as the Primary Focus – While this may seems like a no brainer (we know, we know), it is easy to get pulled back into the land of content because that is where we are/were comfortable. Refer back to the skill cues, consider the outcomes you want from your students, and then make a plan. If you keep in mind that everything you do in the classroom leads to student outcomes you are more likely to be thoughtful in the activities and assessments you select.

We can all get bogged down by life, dwell on our mistakes or failures and feel that we aren’t going to be able to actually make a change. But when we push through and persevere – that is the good stuff – that is progress, and growth and expanding our limits!

No matter where you are in the process, remember:

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” ~Arthur Ashe

Every change you make will lead to more changes and eventually you will reach your goal of being a kick@ss skills-based health educator!


Images from:


Fact or Fiction: Can Students Tell the Difference?

A recent article from NPR ( describes some startling new research about students’ inability to discern “fake news” from “real news”. It is really interesting how little awareness students seem to have – and not just younger students – all the way through college about finding valid and reliable information.

You probably see the connection coming already . . . this is yet another example of why it is so critical that we teach the skill of accessing valid and reliable information. Not only for their health but also for their roles as citizens! We cannot underestimate the importance of helping our students become informed consumers of information – all kinds of information.

Interestingly, I just completed an assignment with my undergraduate students in which I asked them to do research and advocate for their position on the ballot question of legalizing marijuana (it was timely as we did this the week before we voted on this ballot question in Massachusetts).  They chose their side and did their “research”. I noticed a few things from this activity:

  • • Their “research” involved finding things on news sites or other potentially biased websites
  • • They freely used “facts” that they found – whether or not they could verify those facts as actual truth or just “spin”
  • • There is a LOT of engaging, eye catching, funny, easy-to-read, easy-to-find information that is essentially someone’s opinion or version of truth and my students didn’t worry too much about using it

To be fair . . . in this case I was asking them to focus more on the advocacy side of things than the accessing valid and reliable information side of things . . . but still.

Then, I read one student’s reflection about the activity. Their rationale used the argument that when you try to advocate for something you say whatever you think your audience wants to hear in order to prove your point.

Huh . . .

This isn’t really wrong . . . but this also wasn’t the take away I was hoping for. I hoped it would help them see how easy it is to find information that confirms our own ideas, that sometimes “facts” aren’t facts, and that it can be hard to find actual truth as opposed to just versions of the truth spun to meet an agenda. We all should CARE that it is this hard to be informed consumers who are making choices informed by truth not versions of it.

In another interesting connection to this article, I use an activity in which I have students Google a health related question and  examine and evaluate the websites that come up on the Google search.

One of the criteria is “Accuracy” in which students have to justify why the information from the source is accurate. Do you know what almost 100% of them said was their justification?

Prior knowledge or hearing the information before.

Yes, it was that they heard that information before or it aligns with prior knowledge/learning so that must be a reason to believe it. Now, in some cases, this may be OK. If you are a college student taking (hopefully) courses that are providing the most current, evidence-based content then maybe, maybe, this is an appropriate justification. But is it? If we can only judge accuracy based on our own prior knowledge – is this really accurate? Are we really taking an opportunity to find the truth? Or just the truth as we know it?

And of course, we could go into a whole dialogue about what “truth” even means . . . but lets move on to Facebook – if that isn’t truth what is?

Within a week of the advocacy activity I did with my undergraduate students, the NPR article showed up on Facebook (seriously  . . . how does Facebook do that?) and in some ways I felt validated. These students DO need more support in developing skills around finding truth in an era where “information” is all around. We DO need to ensure that our students are thoughtful, engaged consumers who do not just stop when they find things that confirm what they already know, who go the next step to verify and search out facts, not just information.

Teaching the skill of accessing valid and reliable information IS important, I would argue, critical for our students. We have a duty to our students to help them become active, engaged, thoughtful, discerning, critical consumers of all information.

Take a look at other support for the work you are doing! Be sure to check out the resources at the end of the NPR article. Here are some others if you haven’t seen them:

How do you teach the skill of accessing valid and reliable information? Share your stories about the need to develop this skill and any other resources to justify just how important this skill is!

There’s no such thing as wasted time . . .

No such thing as wasted time ….


I’d like to start this post by acknowledging that the idea for this entry was sparked by Claudia Brown (@cbrown_t on Twitter). With her permission, I am exploring the ways that we can take advantage of what might sometimes be seen as “wasted time”.


Claudia has shared two ideas which inspired me! First was what she did when her students had to miss health class because of height and weight data collection. Sadly, it often happens that when things come up in schools, it is health class that students get pulled from or that gets cancelled. However, instead of letting this stop her students from practicing skills, Claudia saw this as an opportunity to practice interpersonal communication. She encouraged students to practice the skills they had learned about effective communication to greet the nurse, and if desired, ask about their height and weight. She further connected this experience to their lives outside of school by discussing the fact that interacting with a medical provider can be intimidating but that it is important to ADVOCATE for yourself and to COMMUNICATE with the provider so that you can have an active role in your healthcare.


Lightbulb! Don’t miss the chance to connect to real world practice opportunities. There are probably so many times in school that can we have students practice skills. Not only that, but then think of all the opportunities we could find for students outside of school. You could talk to local store owners and get feedback on how students act in their stores. Visit a local restaurant and talk to wait staff, cashiers, even bus drivers …. so many people who could all be a chance for students to practice and apply effective communication!


Then Claudia went on to share another example of yet another day that students were going to miss out on health class. But did that stop her? Nope!


On this day, she had students practicing refusal skills out in the hallway as they were waiting their turn. Another lightbulb! There is no such thing as “no health class” because the skills we are helping them develop extend far beyond the health classroom. We can take these unexpected, and often unwanted, moments as opportunities …. opportunities to extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom. Whether it is to practice or apply, we can work on these skills wherever and whenever!


The important thing to keep in mind is that, for me, this isn’t exciting because it means we don’t have as much wasted time. It is exciting because it opens up a world of possibilities and has me explore a new perspective about how we can think about the skills we are teaching and to see interruptions and unexpected events as opportunities.


Do you already do this? Take advantage of the unexpected to provide practice or application of skills? If so, we would love to hear your stories! Even if you don’t, can you think of other ways to extend learning beyond the classroom? Please share ideas in the comments.


Have a happy, healthy week!



Thoughts from ASHA

I got in from ASHA about an hour ago! Wish I could have stayed for the final day . . . what a great conference filled with so many people committed to supporting the health and wellness of students. Conferences are such an amazing opportunity to learn from each other, network and to get reinvigorated about the work we are doing.

Holly and I had the opportunity to facilitate a pre-conference workshop, “All About Those Skills”, on Thursday and to do a brief presentation about skill development today! We know our post is two days late (sorry) but we thought it would be great to share some of the ideas (and hopefully excitement) about SKILLS.

During the two days that we were at the conference, Holly and I kept commenting on how excited and (we admit) pleasantly surprised about the buzz around skills-based health education. There are SO MANY people who are getting onboard and who are enthusiastic and committed to enhancing their current skills-based practice or to make the shift. At our pre-conference workshop we had health educators, but we also had people from community based health programs, from Departments of Education and some school nurses and school staff – it was an amazing group that represented many of the stakeholders involved in educating and support our youth.

There were many awesome ideas discussed and shared, but here are some highlights:

  • At the end of the day, health education aims to help students ACT in order to support or enhance their health. Think of the verbs: avoid, engage, increase, decrease, enhance, maintain, access . . . these are just some of actions we want our students to be able to take. No matter how you look at it, health education is about ACTION – what students can DO!
  • Determining functional information can be difficult but we found that even when looking at different topic areas (avoiding alcohol and e-cigarettes, decreasing stress and increasing physical activity) there were themes that emerged in all of these areas: consequences, effects (short- and long-term, positive and negative), relevance, barriers and resources. Maybe we are on to something . . .
  • There are many data sources that we can use to help inform our decisions about our curriculum. The pictures included here show the groups hard at work and their brainstorm about data sources.
  • Participatory methods requires balancing student engagement with off-task behavior as well as finding methods to support active participation (i.e. how to avoid the crickets we often hear when we try large group discussions). This is not easy! Fostering a positive learning environment is critical for success in a skills-based approach. We included a picture below of some of the ideas the group came up with to support a positive learning environment and participatory teaching/learning.
  • We hope that the “powers that be” will get on board and move toward proficiency based assessment and evaluation for students (yes – as we have been doing in health education). We discussed the challenges of assessment especially in systems that haven’t embraced standards- or proficiency-based assessments.
  • People are ready to take action and make positive changes – whether it was bringing information back to help shape new frameworks or enhancing practice in their classrooms – Holly and I were inspired by the many ways people are planning to affect change.

Attending ASHA reminded me that there are so many of us out there “fighting the fight” and there is no end to what we can accomplish – especially when we support and encourage each other.

THANK YOU for all that you do! And thank you to ASHA for a great conference – looking forward to next year.

Along with the pictures, we are including PDF versions of our PPT presentations. We hope you find these resources useful.

~Sarah and Holly



The Power of a Positive Learning Environment

Creating a safe, positive and inclusive learning environment is one of the most critical aspects for supporting learning and to build a classroom community. This is particularly important in a skills-based health education classroom where participatory methods (the use of modeling, observation and social interactions) are the primary instructional strategy. There are many ways to achieve a positive learning environment. Throughout this post we provide suggestions for activities that can be implemented in the classroom and we encourage you to start integrating participatory methods from the very beginning of the year or term so that expectations are set from the moment students enter the classroom.

This is more than the beginning of the year name games and “get to know ya” activities. Creating a positive learning environment is an ongoing process that requires investment from you and your students. You need to continue to work on creating and supporting the classroom community throughout your time with students. Here are some ideas to get you started!

Do you have activities that you use in your classroom? If so, please share in the comments and we will include in future posts!


Getting to Know You/Team Building Activities:

Getting to Know You Survey: I always send out a survey at the beginning of a class. I ask a number of questions but I make sure to always include a space for their preferred name (as it may be different than what is on an official class list) and their preferred pronouns (to provide an opportunity for students to share their gender identity in a way that does not single them out in front of class). I also include questions such as what they are nervous about for the school year, what they are looking forward to, something they are proud of that they have done and a song that makes them happy (that is appropriate for class). I end by asking them what they want to tell me that will help them be successful in my class; I often share some of the ideas to help establish commonalities among the group. I also use the “happy songs” during the year at transitions, during group work, etc. It always lightens the mood in the room and I know that at least one person is happier having heard it!


Group Juggling: This is an activity that I have used for years – I don’t remember where it came from but it is by far one of the best ways for me to learn names (and have a some fun and provide a safe space for students to be a little uncomfortable).

Here’s how to play:

  • Have students stand in a circle (you should be in the circle too).
  • Toss a beanbag around the circle so that everyone gets the beanbag. Make sure that students remember whom they throw to.
  • When the person catches the beanbag, they say their name. Then the WHOLE group repeats that person’s name.
  • Repeat as necessary before proceeding to the next step. Make sure that students are always throwing to the same person.
  • Continue to toss the beanbag around (to the same people) but this time, when the person catches the beanbag everyone says their name (without waiting).
  • Repeat as necessary.
  • The final part of this activity is the “juggling.” Add beanbags to the circle. People still throw to the same people that they have been the whole time but in this round, the beanbags will start at the same time. The goal is to have the beanbags make their way all the way around the circle without being dropped, crashing in the air, etc. Names do not need to be included (except as needed to make a successful catch).



Cult of Pedagogy has some great resources for “Ice Breakers that Rock”. Concentric Circles is a great format not only for getting to know you activities, but any time that you want to engage the entire class, at the same time in discussions. I have used it as a review strategy and for general discussions.


If you have the time, I have had success with The Marshmallow Challenge. It is a great way to have students working together right from the start and when they see spaghetti and marshmallows within the first few lessons – they are intrigued about what they will doing. I also inevitably have groups that take pictures of their successful designs (of their own accord because they are proud of their work!).


Setting Expectations:

 Creating classroom expectations or norms (as opposed to rules – students will tell you that rules feel like they are imposed upon you. Norms/expectations are agreed upon as a class) as a group. Allow students to brainstorm and create norms for their classroom. Create a document or visual that has the agreed upon norms. You may want to have students sign or “formally” agree to meet these expectations. It can be helpful to have these displayed so that they can be referred to throughout the year.


Establishing classroom routines is also important in supporting a positive learning environment – students benefit from routine and can also benefit from understanding why certain activities are included. For example, I have begun to include 1-2 minutes of meditation at the start of every class. I explained to students that I am on my own mindfulness journey and I will be integrating activities during the year, including the start of class meditation to provide them opportunities to explore this practice as well. The meditation ends up being one of the activities that students comment on at the end of the term – they love it! They tell me that they enjoy it not only for the time to focus but also because it shows them that I care about them and their wellness beyond just what I teach in the classroom.

We look forward to hearing your ideas and your feedback!

Have a great start to the year.


“I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.” J. B. Priestley


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