Some of the Best Ideas Are Right Around the Hall

The best lesson I’ve learned about leadership is if you want people to listen to your ideas, you better be the kind of person who listens to theirs. And the best lesson I’ve learned about finding great teaching ideas is that sometimes the thing your teaching practice needs most is occurring just a few doors down in a colleague’s classroom.

Question I might ask if I were in your shoes: “But what if my colleagues don’t share their ideas?”

Reply: “Have you tried, you know, asking them?

Another question I might ask if I were in your shoes:”What if my colleagues and I have NOTHING in common?”

Reply: “It might sound strange, but them having nothing in common with you, might be the very reason you need to check out their teaching.”

A Quick Origin Story

A few years back, I worked with a teacher with whom I could NEVER see eye to eye. Whether it was a school initiative, figuring out an assessment, or discussing a recent professional development, we disagreed about everything. On my worst days, I accused them in my head of being a bad teacher. I even felt sorry for their students. I know! How judge-y of me!

One day, out of curiosity, I asked a colleague, “If I walked into so-and-so’s room, what would I notice them doing well?”

To my surprise they rattled off a list intriguing practices. So, later that day I asked so-and-so if I could watch them teach while my kids were at Music because I’d heard “…she did a few things as a teacher that I wanted to get better at.” She seemed a little weirded out, but she agreed nevertheless.

Let me tell you, I was blown away. Almost none of my assumptions about her teaching were true. She was way nicer to her students than I’d assumed, and I learned so much about structure and class routines! Her class operated in such a calm and peaceful manner because her students had internalized her classroom structures into routines. I also picked up some organizational tips that I still use to this day. I got way more out of the experience that I ever could have imagined.

On top of all that, there was an unintended consequence: we butted heads less and less. Eventually, we collaborated on a few occasions…and even became pretty friendly.

From that moment on, I made it a monthly practice to check out what ALL my colleagues are doing. Even if it’s just visiting classrooms to look for interior design ideas, I always find something good to steal.

So, this year, I made some major changes. I went from teaching 6th grade ELA to teaching a self-contained, combined grades 3 and 4 classroom…in Canada (if you’re reading this from the States, it’s pretty common to have combined grades classrooms up here). You might imagine that I’ve been leaning on my colleagues ideas like never before. As a gift to you, here are just a few of my colleagues’ awesome teaching ideas:

Idea I Stole #1: Provocation Stations

One of my school’s current initiatives is Inquiry-based Learning, and one of my biggest blindspots has always been setting up the physical space to inspire curiosity and wonder. Lucky for me, I work with some folks who are geniuses in this area. At the beginning of the school year, I saw this while I was paying a visit to my school’s Kindergarten teacher…

My school’s amazing kindergarten teacher had this set up in her room at the beginning of the year

I just loved the idea of having a part of the classroom whose sole purpose was to provoke learning, aka a “Provocation Station.” The thing was, I didn’t have a strong enough grasp on teaching grades 3/4 yet to translate the idea into a reality for my kids. Yet.

A few weeks later, I visited my school’s grade 1/2 teacher, who had set up an experiment with her students in which they observed potatoes as they decomposed inside plastic baggies. She leveraged this experiment into a classroom design element when she taped all the rotting potato baggies to her window. The way the light struck those moldy root vegetables was something to behold, and every morning her kids would make a b-line for that window. Sometimes I would visit just to check out the potatoes’ progress. What a powerful learning magnet, she’d created.

The Rotting Potato “Provocation Window”

Seeing how she’d set up a “Provocation Station” to showcase a Science experiment helped clear my mental block. In my grade 3/4 class, 4th graders had designed experiments to find out how various microbes sense and respond to their environments. So, I took a page out of my colleagues’ playbooks and incorporated our inquiry work into my class environment…

It’s not much, but it’s a start. Behold: The Petri Dish Windowsill

This is a project that 4th graders are doing, but 3rd and 4th graders alike flock to the windowsill every morning to see what new gross developments have emerged! It’s fun to think about how much my current 3rd graders are looking forward to 4th grade Science!


Another of my areas for improvement is my inability to make enticing anchor charts. I’ve come a long way, but, if you’ve read any of my posts, you know that my Anchor Charts skew toward the utilitarian (but I’m getting better!).

Just today, I visited my Kindergarten teacher pal, and I saw this approach to a Wonder Wall.

Her approach to the Wonder Wall provided an instant boost for me in Social Studies. Right now, my students are researching cooperation and conflict between early European explorers and the indigenous peoples of North America. One problem I keep encountering is that students are going on too many research side quests and not enough deep dives. When I saw her Wonder Wall, it hit me. Maybe there was a middle ground. So, I ran back to my classroom and set up a Wonder Wall where we can park all our side quests until we’ve completed our deep dives.

— — —

As for the chart below, I just love the way my grade 5/6 colleague approaches classroom rules.

How awesome is this?! Definitely stealing this next year.

This next idea isn’t an anchor chart, but the same grade 5/6 colleague who created the above chart was baking cookies with her Math students a few weeks ago to teach fractions. A few of my students caught wind of this and said, “Mr. W.! The older kids are baking in Math. Can we bake, too?” My initial response was, “Ummm, no?” And my students nearly revolted! To prevent a mutiny, I backed down and said I didn’t feel confident enough to bake with them yet, but maybe we could come up with some other projects… So, even when I’m not actively trying, I end up bowing to my fellow teachers’ influence.

Reading Strategies and Book Suggestions

I was visiting another one of my colleagues the other day, and I asked what he was doing in Reading. He got out these yellow bookmarks and showed me how he’s turned them into sort of learning progression for his students. I forgot to take a picture, but on the back, students create an icon to represent each skill, and every time they use one of the skills to jot down their thinking, they check off the skill and draw the icon that represents the skill on the back of the book mark! I looked at a few of the bookmarks and the kids’ icon drawings were adorable…

Pretty cool, right?

I asked him how he came up with the idea, and he told me about a book called Notebook Connections. I looked at it, and said, “Oh! I know this author! She wrote a Notebook Know-how!”

by: Aimee Buckner

This bookmark idea was perfect because I’d recently shared a microprogrlession (a strategy I picked up from a book called DIY Literacy) with my students to help them think about how they can level up their reading notebook entries…

Microprogression: Character Traits Notebook Jot

Here’s a quick summary of how it works: the orange-colored jot is a basic entry about character traits, the green jot is the next level up because it includes some evidence, and the blue jot has everything in the orange and green jots, but it also includes why the trait matters.

Inspired by my colleague, I combined each of the next few lesson topics into a single Thinkmark. The orange, green, and blue dots represent the level of notebook jot the student made, and they’ll put tally marks next to them. I’ll brainstorm with students tomorrow about how they’d like to go about drawing the icons on the back…

My adaptation of the Thinkmark

Okay! That’s it for now, but I hope my colleagues ideas have been as useful to you as they have been to me. More importantly, I’m hoping that this post inspires you to visit each others’ rooms, if you aren’t already, and seek out the amazingness that’s swirling around you! Above all, I hope that you get to experience the culture of empowerment and idea-sharing that can occur when we take a break from showing-off and instead take a give that opportunity to a colleague.

How do you create a culture of sharing in your school? What kinds of things have you learned from watching colleagues teach? I’d love to hear all about it! Leave a comment below, and follow me on Twitter @MrWteach!

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