Need a break? Splash around in the contextual pool.

I’m writing this post during my SAT proctoring break and I’m exhausted.  I just read mind-numbing directions for almost an hour, then checked calculators, then more directions, then watched kids bubble. I’m beat. And I didn’t even take the test! Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I’m pretty sure that by Friday (we have two days of this!), their brains will be mush and they’ll be in dire need of a break.

So what’s a conscientious teacher to? I know my kids will all yell FREE DAY or beg for a movie, but I’m not that soft yet. I know there are ways that I can ease up on the pressure Friday but still keep us moving in the right direction. 

Mike (@zigthinks) and I have been blogging and webinar-ing about helping kids deepen and expand their contextual pools of knowledge all spring (you can still get last night’s recording or sign up for our second installment here). They need to know stuff in order to be effective, thoughtful readers and writers. We’ve made a lot of references to the need to do deep diving and exploring of all the undersea caves and coral reefs they can find (sorry we love our metaphor and we refuse to abandon it).  

But this week? If I asked my kids to do a deep dive on Friday, they’d for sure get the bends. They need a little time to splash around with their buddies and play in their contextual pools. 

What do they already know? 

What do their friends know? 

How can I get them thinking while they play and experiment a little?

Below are three different ways I’ve helped my students splash around and deepen their contextual pools in the most low-stress ways possible. 

ABC Races

Purpose: Help students recognize and recall all the things they actually DO know.

I started playing this game a few years ago when I realized my students had forgotten many of the things they’d learned in their other classes. As much as we hope they’re making (and retaining) connections, they aren’t always doing that. For example, while reading a speech given in 1962 with my students I asked, “What was the backdrop of this speech? What was going on in the US or the world?” Blank stares. “WW2?”  When I shook my head, a bolder voice shouted out “WW1?” 🤯  With a little pressing and redirection, I got them to the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Those things were in their contextual pools, but they were covered in seaweed. 

What do you do: 

  • Divide your kids into teams of 3-4.
  • Give them a blank table with the alphabet listed in one column.
  • Tell them to work as a team to fill in a historic event or person (you can be as specific as you think your kids can handle). 
  • First team to turn in a completed list wins! YAY! 
  • Prizes: stickers, lame candy your own children refused to eat after Halloween, whatever. They won’t care! Kids just like to win stuff. 
  • This doesn’t have to be history-focused, either.  It’s fun to do with current events or pop culture, too. 
  • Once they are done, there are all kinds of ways to extend this thinking. Highlight ones that could be thematically connected and be ready to explain your choices. Rank your letters in terms of impact on the world, etc. 

Why kids like it: 

Prizes, of course. Also, though, it’s very affirming for them to realize all of the things that they DO know. Once everyone has turned in their team sheets, I like to pick some at random to discuss. They’re always pretty amazed to see the things they have remembered and the thinking they are able to trigger in one another. 

Vocab Continuums

Purpose: Extend their existing vocabulary.

One of the shallowest parts of many kids’ contextual pools is their vocabulary.  This is a fun, collaborative way to help them stretch their vocab and think about the connotation of words that are synonyms but have very different uses. And, by allocating time for word play in class, I’m backing up my claim that words matter and that a rich vocabulary is worth their time. 

What do you do:

  • Get out all your craft supplies (the more the better!). Paper, markers, crayons, glitter if you’re a sociopath.
  • Divide your students into teams of 3-4.
  • Give each team a basic word (good, bad, smart, interesting, happy, etc)
  • As a team, create a continuum with your word. Think of as many related words and where they’d fall on a spectrum–and let them determine the scale (positive vs negative, intense vs neural, etc.)
  • Encourage them to use their phones to look up synonyms and find new words to add that they didn’t already know. 
  • Be creative- choose colors or images that help justify why your word is where it is. 
  • Let them craft their little hearts out and share their work at the end of class.
  • I’ve found the fewer instructions I give this, the richer their continuums are. They think of ways to connect or represent words that I would never imagine. 

Why kids like it:

I know that I don’t give my students enough opportunities to be creative and a little silly. Getting out construction paper and crayons immediately activates that younger part of their brain that lets them slow down and have some fun. To be clear, some kids HATE crafty things (example: my own 13 year old), but often even the anti-crafters can be coaxed into good conversation about words when they’re working with friends in a relaxed environment. 

What’s In Your Twitter Feed?

Purpose: Push them to find new sources of info and spark curiosity. 

Most of our students are heavily invested in social media, but they’re often blasting right by the parts of it that would help them most. Now, I know that many of our students are highly engaged with current events, but those kids usually need this, too. If your pool is only deep in one area (for example, American politics) you’re missing a whole ocean of other things to learn about. 

What do you do:

  • Snag some tweets from your own feed. Here’s an example that I pulled together for this activity a few years ago. 
  • Have your students discuss your examples in small groups.  What makes this interesting? What do you already know about this? What questions does it raise? 
  • After they have the idea from your examples, send them searching! I like to start a big list of “good follows” on the board to help them out and then ask them to add, too. News, science, pop culture, nature–but quirky things, too, like @terriblemaps or @merriamwebster or @mentalfloss. 
  • Task each group with finding a weird tweet, a funny tweet, and an alarming tweet. Those three categories alone should be enough to spark some great discussions.
  • Have everyone share their screenshots to a shared powerpoint and save it for another day’s discussion.

Why kids like it:

Most kids are naturally curious, but they don’t get enough time to fall in rabbit holes and they’re often told they’re wasting time on the internet. Giving time to poke around on the internet and validating that that time can be beneficial is quite appealing to many of them. This is really the perfect, relaxing way to get them learning by accident. 

Obviously, these can’t be the end of the work you do with deepening your students’ contextual pools. Think of this as a lazy day at the beach where you let your kids putter around in tide pools and catch minnows and dig up a shell or two.  Eventually you’ll bust out your snorkel and swim past the buoys, but sometimes it’s okay to just play around. 


What do you do to help your students relax but still stay engaged with learning? Share below, on the Moving Writers Facebook page, or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie. 

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  1. Would you be willing to post some examples of the vocabulary continuua? I’m having a hard time visualizing that. Thanks for the great ideas!!

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