By Gina Kennedy

By Gina Kennedy

Ten Easy Ways To Promote Critical Thinking Skills In Your Elementary Classroom

By Gina Kennedy-Brown

In a perfect world, teaching students to think critically at a higher level would be an integral part of any classroom's curriculum.  Whereas, teachers are much more aware of the need to challenge their students at a higher level and have become much better "questioners"; there are many small things we can do to promote higher level thinking skills on a daily basis in the classroom that take little or no teacher preparation.  

1. "Four Numbers and Three Operations!"  Depending on the age group, write a two, three or four digit number on the dry erase board each morning and ask the students to use four different numbers and any three operations in an expression to calculate the number.  The entire challenge should only take four to five minutes a day.  This would be a great daily entry in their math journals.

For example:     145       9 x 5 x 3 +10 = 145
                              38       3 x 30 ÷ 15 + 32 = 38
                            100      1000 ÷ 10 - 50  x  2 = 100

There is definitely more than one solution and if a student finishes early they can continue to work on an alternative way to solve the problem.  You could provide the additional challenge of seeing how many different expressions they can form.   
You could also mix it up providing one of the four numbers they must use.  You may choose to have the students use the "order of operations" as they progress to add more difficulty.

2.  "Build the Highest Number!"  This is the reverse to "Four Numbers and Three Operations" as this time the teacher will write any four numbers on the board and challenge the students to create the highest whole number possible using three different operations.  The key is that they must use division and subtraction as two of their operations. I would suggest using two common multiples as two of the numbers that you provide.  In this activity there may only be one answer, but it will involve a depth of critical thinking skills to realize this.  This should only take four to five minutes a day.  I would use this primarily for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders.   This would also be a great daily entry in their math journals.

For example:     5, 71, 80, 8              80 x 71 ÷ 8 - 5= 705
                              9, 69,  4,  12            69 x 12 ÷ 4 - 12 = 195
                              13, 19, 6, 4              13+ 19  ÷  4 - 6 =  2      

3.  "Inventions"!  This is simply an activity of brainstorming.  Brainstorming is an important technique that can be misused in classrooms to the point where it becomes an ineffective learning tool.   If implemented correctly, brainstorming will create a new level of depth in how your students produce ideas. Major corporations are once again grasping a hold of this simple process of producing ideas through discussion.  Teams of engineers are commonly asked to come up with new product ideas using this simple technique.  

      In this activity each week I place an object on display for our class to see such as a paper clip,  clothespin, hanger, key chain, comb or desk caddy and I have them brainstorm new ways the object can be used or to name other inventions that could feed off of the object's structure or form. 
      I always start the year with a paperclip because students have a fairly easy time with this and the ideas roll off quite naturally from earrings, lock pickers to one student who determined that they could be used for hanging pictures so that the weight of the nail would not bend.

In recent studies, the order of the ideas that are being generated have followed this order:
First Set: (1-33 ideas) will be the easy and obvious ideas and won't usually involve anything different or new than what most would think of.
Second Set: (approximately the 35th-70th ideas) will be unique and creative and involve new ideas based on prior knowledge and experience.

Somewhere in the first or second set; many students will have hit a mental wall.  If they are continuing to develop new ideas after this point; they have reached the realm of creativity. Large companies search for people who possess the higher level thinking skills to develop ideas past the second set.  

There is no teacher prep other than brainstorming objects that you could use!

It only takes one idea to impact the world!

4. "Cross WORDS!"  This is simply a quick spelling and vocabulary activity that generates quick ideas. The students are given any vocabulary word from the teacher; it could be from a unit they are currently studying or even a current event.  They start with the vocabulary word and build words left to right, and top to bottom crossword style.  I take it one step further for my competitive group that I have this year and have my students add up their points by counting each letter as two points.  I've included the link below to download this FREE  ACTIVITY.
Download your copy here!

5. "IF I WAS FROM.." Geography Project!  Research projects for students continue to provide an outlet for stimulating critical thinking skills.  With this activity, students are given a recording sheet titled "If I Was From".  The teacher provides them with a city, state, or country and they find out quick facts about the geographic area; such as what language they speak, what type of homes they live in, or what industries are popular there and so on.  This entire research activity can be completed in fifteen to twenty minutes.  While they aren't required to complete the formal lengthy research paper; they learn to search deeper and use critical thinking skills while finding the "bare bone" facts about their location.   I've included the link below to download this FREE ACTIVITY.

Download your copy here!

6.  "Character Trait 4's"!  Each week we discuss one character trait such as honesty, determined, empathetic, loyal and so on.  As an entire class or in groups, students have to determine four people in the public eye who display that trait and four signs to tell if someone possesses that trait as well as four ways that having that character trait can have a positive or negative impact on someone's life.
 I've included the link below to download this free activity.

Download your copy here!

7. "If They Build It, they Will Learn!"  For those of you old enough to remember "The Field of Dreams", this might be a catchy name.   Sometimes we forget that the simplest things in life are right in front of our eyes.   One major monetary investment I made in my career years ago was a huge set of Legos.  When the students are getting tired and they need a "brain break", divide them into groups, take out the Legos and provide a "theme".   Have each group produce a structure connected to the theme.  You can use any curricular theme; the idea is to spark higher level thinking so the more abstract the theme; the better.  I usually set the clock to ten minutes and that seems to be all they need to create their brilliant Lego displays.

8. "Fortunately Unfortunately!"  Display a statement for the class to read that begins with either fortunately or unfortunately.   Have the students come up with the fortunately or unfortunately endings with a partner and share their responses.  This forces students to think "outside of the box" to look at the alternative side of situations.  This  is also an extension of "point of view" and references that there are always two sides to every story.

For example:
Unfortunately, I read an article today that said that "wild hogs" are causing millions of dollars of damage in the southern states by destroying property.

A few of my students' actual replies:
Fortunately, wild hogs can be used to feed starving people in the United States.
Fortunately, some people have a TV show and have made a lot of money because of wild hogs.

9. "Community Problem Solvers!"  Research local issues in your city.  Explain the situation to your class or share a newspaper article or news clip.  Fortunately, most local newcasts can be found online.  Divide the class into small groups and have them determine a  "plan of action" to help solve the problem.
Download your copy here!

10.  "Could This Be True?"  I like to use a questioning technique called, "Could This Be True?"  I read a statement or quote to the class and they must determine if it could be true or not.  I divide the class into groups and they must come up with a detailed statement as to whether they believe it could or could not be true and then share their ideas with the remainder of the class.  Some of the statements may seem controversial; but controversy sparks thoughts; and this is exactly what you should be looking for.

Sample Statements:

  • You can have as much success in life without a college degree as you can if you have one.
  • You cannot teach a man anything: you can only help him discover it in himself. - Galileo
  • The Hunger Games could actually happen in real life.
  • In ten years people will not use Facebook.
  • In 100 years all students will learn from computers at home.
  • Boys will always score higher than girls in mathematics and science.

It doesn't take a lot of time to add a few of these activities to your classroom routine.  Whereas, we must embed critical thinking into our daily lessons; it is imperative that we create unique situations in which we encourage creativity and higher level thinking skills in our classrooms.


Great ideas to differentiate and integrate the real world into your curriculum and create a rigorous learning environment!  

1.   Order of Operations Math/Writing Project: 
Each year when I teach this traditional order of operations memorization tool, I take it a step further and I have them dig into Aunt Sally's life. 
The students are assigned to write a pretend story of her infamous life and  how  "Dear Aunt Sally" almost kept students all over the world  from learning about the order of operations.  They must also include a picture of what "Dear Aunt Sally" looks like.

Along those same lines, I also have a free "Order of Operations, My Dear Aunt Sally" poster featuring everyone's favorite aunt, "Aunt Bee" that can be found in my store at the link below:

2. For an additional challenge when teaching rotations, reflections and translations, have your students become "playscape designers."

You've been hired to design the "Ultimate Playscape" for the new school playground.  You must draw a design for the playscape that includes four examples of rotations, four examples of reflections and four examples of translations.  Also include two examples of symmetry.  
Create your design on a 12"x 18" white piece of construction paper.  Label your translation, rotation, symmetry and reflection examples on your drawing. 

You can find other challenging and fun translation, rotation, and reflection enrichment projects on my menu, "Rotation, Reflection, Translation Differentiated Project Menu" found at the link below:

3.  This is a fun way to do a "Character Monthly Book Report", provide your students with a blank calendar and have them choose a character from the book they are currently reading.  Pretend the calendar belongs to the  character from the story and have them fill in events that they might have scheduled on each day of the month based on the events in the story.  I have them complete an entry for all of the days on the calendar.

This is an example that I use with my students from "Diary of A Wimpy Kid" by Jeff Kinney. 

4.  MY LIFE AS A BOOK!   On a more individual note, I have my students determine how their life would read as a book on a weekly basis.  The more ways we use text structure concepts in our classrooms; the more understanding our students will gain.  This is a fun assignment that can be used once a month or more to assess their understanding of these concepts.

5.   Assessing the Comprehension Level of Read-Alouds:  With this generation; more than ever,  it is imperative to share books with our students.  After I read to the students we play the "Ultimate book title Challenge".  I asked the students ten questions about the story I have just read and if anyone can answer it, they get a point; if no one can answer it I get a point.   We keep track and at the end of the week, they earn a minute of free time for every 3 points they have won.

Coordinate Grid Teacher Resources!

Geometry doesn't have to be boring!  

My students have been working on geometry enrichment projects in 5th Grade.  

I was extremely impressed by their products; plotting coordinate grids, ordered pairs and understanding the locations of axis can appear to be a very simple standard, but it is a standard that grows in complexity from one year to the next.  Through the years, I have experienced that some students pick up this concept quickly and others struggle with remembering how to the spatially order the movement of the plots.

For the students that needed some additional challenges as we were finishing our geometry unit, the enrichment projects were just the ticket for providing that extra rigor in our geometry  unit.  Click HERE to purchase the 5th Grade Geometry Enrichment Projects!

The projects included with this resource are completely "NO-PREP".  Here are a few examples of the "coordinate grids" products my students created:

This was a "Coordinates Football Game" that he created, it also included directions and player pieces.
I also have a set of "Coordinate Grids, Ordered Pairs Task Cards with vocabulary terms. The activities on the task cards are great for assessing the coordinate grid (geometry) standards and they  range from easy to challenging.  The challenging Task Cards can be purchased at my TPT store HERE!

Fun Writing Ideas and More!

Great ideas to differentiate and integrate the real world into your curriculum and create a rigorous learning environment!  

1. I found these amazing photos yesterday of these beautiful fashionable mature women at this LINK
I decided to have my students write pretend biographies of these lovely ladies utilizing their creative writing skills, pretending that they know the women;  but following the guidelines of a biography as well!

2. Bingo cards are amazing "math tools".  I make copies of bingo cards or create my own all the time and have found a multitude of ways they can become teaching tools:

A.  Write a "P" over the Prime Numbers  and a "C" over the Composite Numbers
B.  Cross out all the numbers that are a multiple of 3.
C. VERY CHALLENGING: Play "Add It Up" Bingo, Call out a number between 6 and 207, the students have to find any three numbers on their card that add up to the called out number.  The first to find a match, WINS!
D.  For primary students you could cross out the odds or evens, find the counting by 2's, 5's and so on counting numbers.
E.  Play bingo the regular way;  but call out "factor of 2, multiple of 7, double digit number and so on."

3. I love this approach to daily journals, I would have the students think of a "theme" word to describe something happening in their life and then use every starting letter to write ideas that elaborate on the theme.

4.  GREAT SOCIAL STUDIES- WRITING INTEGRATION:  "History Caption Writing":  Provide a different photo from a variety of decades in United States history to each student.  I have found several online from historical sites.   Have the students pretend the photo belongs to them and they must write a pretend one-two paragraph caption about each photo.  This is a photo I used with one of my 5th students and the caption he created:

"This is the day that pa came home after the war from fighting the Rebels.  My brother and I were part of the drum line that welcomed him home.  He was so excited to see all of us including, "Edward", my nephew and his new grandchild.  Mom cooked him his favorite  meal of fried squirrel and homemade apple pie.  We haven't had much meat since Pa left to fight with the Union so the meal was a real treat.  Now Pa is worried about getting a job and making sure we all go back to school.  I was kind of enjoying my time off helping mom while he was gone; but it's back to the books."             by Bruce

5. Sponge Activity:  Instead of playing "I Spy", play "I Remember A Cool Thing We Learned This Year" .  At the end of the day I have one student think of something they have learned this year in any subject.  The other students will ask them questions such as "What subject was it in?" , "Does it involve numbers?",  " Can You Prove it?" 
They must ask "one word answer" questions, but it doesn't have to be a "yes or no" question as long as it can be answered in one word.  It takes awhile, but they always seem to get it right after about the 10th question.

6.  Grocery Store Ads:  For a cheap and easy math teaching tool, pick up a few of the free grocery ads at your local grocer and have your students identify shapes and angles of pictures in the ads while they participate in a "Geography Scavenger Hunt".  Give them a black pen and a grocery ad and let them "go to town" (or go to the grocery store at least!)

This is a quick approach I've used in the past with a point system:
Rules:  In order to get credit for your points, everything must be labeled and identified and the point value written next to it.  Put the total number of points you've received on each page circled on the left hand bottom corner.  You will not get credit for any points that do not follow the rules above.

10 Points Each:  Cones, Cylinders, Pyramids, Cubes, Rectangular Prisms, Spheres
5 Points Each:  Triangles, Hexagons, Octagons, Rhombus, 
4 Points Each:  Right Angles (One Per Product), Example of Congruency, Example of a                    Translation, Example of A Rotation, Example of a Reflection

Of course you can add your own criteria, but I set the clock to 20 or 30 minutes and we record  points when I say "STOP!"  I've also found that department store ads work well also such as Target or Walmart.

Have a wonderful week and keep doing what you do, there are alot of young minds depending on you,

President's Day! Teacher Resources


Presidents' Day is right around the corner and many students will still be in class due to snow make-up days or other reasons.  Why not use this day to honor our great leaders?
With such great attention given to test preparation during this month, most presidential studies have been pushed to the wayside and it is time to start providing these educational opportunities again if we want our students to become responsible citizens.

My students have been working on projects this week from my "United States President Enrichment Projects" resource.  This resource includes No-Prep engaging and thought provoking projects that require the students to complete tasks such as researching the presidents' occupations or determining how a president from the 19th century might feel about a president from the 21st century.  Students can complete one to three or more of the projects.  These projects can be purchased HERE in my TPT store!
On President's Day, my students will each draw a president's name and create a research poster about their president.  They will follow guidelines of what they must include and will be provided a rubric in order for them to better understand the expectations.  I have this resource available for FREE in my store.

Another great product and "DEAL" that I found on TPT for President's Day is by "Rule 1, Have Fun".  She has "I Have, Who Has" Task Cards that are creative and challenging for upper elementary students. Click HERE to check out this resource!

On President's Day I share an abundance of "presidential" literature with my students.  We discuss the role of the president and the role of the Executive Branch.  I would highly recommend the following books:

1.  Duck for President (New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books) by Doreen Cronin

2. If I Were President by Catherine Stier

For a free curriculum guide and activities for this book on Catherine Stier's website,  go to:
3. Presidents' Day by Ann Rockwell

4. What Does the President Do? by Amanda Miller


5. So You Want To Be President? by Judith St. George

 Other Presidents' Day Ideas:
1. This website includes famous speeches and quotes by Abraham Lincoln, assign a specific speech to small groups of students and have them summarize the speech or rewrite it in more "kid-friendly" terms to share with the rest of the class.
Lincoln Speeches

2. This link will guide you  to an excellent printable with information and activities about George Washington from George Washington, A National Treasure:

3. For fun, this website will provide easy directions to teach your students how to draw Washington and Lincoln.
After they have illustrated the presidents, they could create a Biopoem about each president.

What is a Biopoem? A Biopoem is a poem that describes a person in 11 lines. There is a specific formula to use when writing a bio poem.

(First name)-

(Four adjectives that describe the person)

Son or Daughter of (your parents names)

Lover of (three different things that the person loves)

Who feels (three different feelings and when or where they are felt)

Who gives (three different things the person gives)

Who fears (three different fears the person has)

Who would like to see (three different things the person would like to see)

Who lives (a brief description of where the person lives)

-(last name)

4. Provide five 3"x5" index cards for each student and have the students research five different presidents and create "Presidential Trading Cards".  On each card provide the name of the president, his birthdate, years in office, birthplace and any other vital information you'd like them to include.

More Differentiating!


Great ideas to differentiate and integrate the real world into your curriculum and create a rigorous learning environment!

1.  This is a great site called "MATH IN THE NEWS" with FREE challenging word problems for individual, group or class activities.

Math in the News!

2. Download travel brochures from this website: Travel Brochures

Use these brochures for anything from research reports, Olympic country reports, or even as a persuasion writing prompt (students could write persuasive letters to their parents explaining why their destination is where the family should travel to in the summer.)

3. I love this blog by Lynnae McCoy:  Lynnae McCoy  She provides a template in which students fill out information they've researched about different countries that are participating in the winter Olympics.   I am having each student in my class complete the template for a different country and share.  Check out this blog for other amazing ways to teach geography in your Olympic studies.

4. Another way that I differentiate our study of the Olympics in our classroom is by assigning a different winter Olympic sport to each of my students.  In return; they research the sport, provide a description of how the sport is played and judged.  They also research the current world records in the event!  They transfer all their research and information onto a poster.  This is great for early finishers and students who are completing independent enrichment activities!

5. As February approaches most schools are beginning to do final preparations and reviews for their state-wide assessments and teachers are looking for ways to review standards without the normal routine task of multiple choice drill and kill!    
In math I assign heterogeneous mixed ability groups of two to three students a math standard that we have already learned.
They must create a two minute commercial (humor is welcome) to present to the remainder of the class that stresses the importance of that math standard and provide a short lesson handout review for the other students.  The handout can be a review for the other students such as a test, crossword, or game.  It needs to take the other students no longer than 10-15 minutes to complete.
I have one group present each day as test time approaches and the students love it!

6.  FACT A DAY!  Last year I would assign one student a day the task of coming up with one amazing fact that they didn't think the rest of the students would know.  This fact can be something about our studies or something far out in left field.  I write each days fact down and give them their "OUR AMAZING FACTS" book at the end of the year to take home with every fact compiled to one list!

Have a great week teachers, a great deal of kids are depending on you!


Elapsed Time Challenge!

Elapsed time is one of those concepts that can make sense quite quickly for students and for others it becomes  a dreaded task that they find impossible to understand even with a multitude of practice. 

Several teachers approach this concept with a variety of strategies, I know many primary educators are having students create their own clocks such as the examples provided below from homemade materials.   When students create their own clocks they become actively engaged in the time telling process.  

Once the clocks are constructed the teacher simply models how the clock hands move from one starting time to the other and the students count the minutes in increments of five as the teacher assesses skill readiness through observation.  For the upper primary grades, many teachers also use the t-chart method to create better understanding of elapsed time such as this one found at this teacher's blog (Cindy) Elapsed Time T-Chart 

For students in the upper elementary, there are several strategies that I use to provide enrichment and fun to this concept.  It is extra important in the upper elementary grades to have "elapsed time" enrichment ideas ready and available as many kids grasp these ideas immediately.

1.  I love to copy downloadable bus and train schedules that can be found online such as these:
Red Line Bus Schedule

Austin Bus Schedule

Cy Ride College Bus Schedule

Most cities have a bus schedule that can be downloaded. I print a copy of one schedule for each of the students and then have them create five word problems of their own that involve elapsed time from the information provided in the schedule. These schedules are also an awesome teaching tool to use for whole class instruction.

2. I also use this as an enrichment time to study time zones.  "Browse the World" has a wonderful lesson online Time Zones with Mr. Dowling

After studying about time zones, I have the students answer this "higher level" question in a short paragraph:
How do time zones effect elapsed time?

After this, I have students write down five things they do on schedule on a regular school day from morning to night such as walking home from school, waking up, walking to school and etc.  Then they are asked to research what time it is for five other children in different time zones (countries) at the time that they complete those very same activities.

3. I have also created a resource called "Elapsed Time" Math Research Enrichment Project This is an excellent enrichment lesson on elapsed time. For years I have been using this website as a teaching tool for elapsed time and my students have loved it. In this project they choose travel destinations, are guided through the site and they determine the amount of elapsed time in their journey. The students love this project and the parents are so impressed that once they leave 4th and 5th grade they are able to get online and book their flights!
This resource can be purchased in my store HERE !

4.  NASA provides a fantastic and  "FREE" Elapsed Time Unit that will challenge all learners that can be downloaded HERE!

I hope by using some of these tools you can provide the perfect amount of enrichment and rigor needed to interest a wide variety of learners in your classroom when teaching elapsed time!