If you’re anything like me, you probably have students who are very reluctant to do any journal or creative writing. I have to confess, at times, I fall into the category of reluctant writer as well. But, never mind. That discussion is for another time.

Over the years, I’ve tried different strategies to motivate my reluctant writers. There’re a couple of strategies that I combine that make my students less reluctant to do their journal entries or their creative writing assignments. Perhaps these two strategies combined will work for you too.

First, I provide my students with photo writing prompts such as the one below that I found on Pinterest.

Writing prompt from Pinterest

Pinterest is a great resource for photo writing prompts. I especially like the combination of the photo and the written prompts. There are lots  of photo prompts with written prompts on Pinterest.   I simply choose a few photo writing prompts on a given day and then upload them onto our class site, or when I’m lucky enough to have a document camera I use it to project the photo writing prompts onto the screen. Then my students choose a photo writing prompt that appeals to them. I also have some emergency photo writing prompts printed off and available in case the computer isn’t working. I’ve learned the hard way to be prepared.

Having my students choose a photo writing  prompt is the first part of my strategy. The second part is to have my students do a 5 minute writing sprint. My students like the fact that there is a time limit to their writing. I used to use an actual timer in class but I’ve found that using an  on-line timer that I  project onto the screen is better. My students  can look up at the projected timer and see when the agony is over. Surprisingly, most of my  students enjoy using the photo writing prompts and doing the five minute sprint. It’s fun to see them so engaged by the photo writing prompts. The Internet is such a wonderful resource.






What’s it take for good teaching to happen?   I think good teaching happens when teachers connect to their students and when teachers get their students to connect to the subject matter (Parker J. Palmer, 2007). For me my best teaching moments happen when my students and I connect on a person to person level. Let me explain what I mean.

As some of you might know, I’ve been a special ed teacher for a long, long, long time- some days it seems longer than others.  Quite a few semesters ago I had these two young lads (I’ll call them Sam and Dwayne)  in my grade nine learning strategies class who were extremely proud of their reputation for being bad. The first few days of the semester, as we were getting to know one another,  Sam and Dwayne told me they had been the best of friends since kindergarten and that they were proud of their reputation for were really bad. They  enthusiastically shared all kinds of stories of what they had done to teachers in the past. Scary, to say the least. Oh, did I mention they told me hated teachers and school?

The first three weeks of the semester did not go well. I  realized Sam and Dwayne could make this class this semester a living hell for me if I didn’t do something fast. They were a very dynamic duo, let me tell you.  I figured although they hated teachers maybe if they got to know me as a person who is a teacher (emphasis on person), things might not go so badly. I often tell my students that teachers are just people who teach. I don’t want them to lose track of the person in the teacher, and I try not to lose track of the person in the student.  I knew I needed to connect to Sam and Dwayne on a person to person level fast.

When I was thinking about strategies I could use to help make that person to person connection between Sam and Dwayne and myself,  the word Scrabble popped into my head. So I took out the Scrabble game, and I sat down at a table between the two of them  and started to set up the Scrabble  game. Sam told me he didn’t play any games with teachers. Oh, great ! Now what.  I just ignored what Sam said, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do. Pretending not to hear what Sam had said, I continued to set up the Scrabble game and surprisingly, to me at least, both boys proceeded to play Scrabble with me. I think I told them that day any words they made that were verbs got double points, another day the bonus words might be adjectives or adverbs. I liked using Scrabble to help my student  improve their vocabulary and grammar  skills. We played Scrabble together for part of each class for about eight days and got to know one another as people as we talked about “whatever” during the games. To my relief,  Sam and Dwayne became more and more cooperative in class and d hardly  disruptwd the class. We continued to play Scrabble from time to time throughout the semester because,  as it turned out,  they did like to play Scrabble with a teacher.

Although, I used playing Scrabble to help me make a positive connection with Sam and Dwayne, there are countless other  ways to make positive connections with students. It all depends on the teacher and the students. I like playing Scrabble, so I used playing Scrabble.  I was able to play Scrabble in my learning strategies class because the learning strategy class it isn’t really content driven like my math classes are. If Sam and Dwayne had been in my math class, I would have had to come up with another strategy to use to help me make a positive connection with them.  Making that the positive connection is the important thing. There isn’t just one way to create that positive connection.

From time to time, Sam and Dwayne came back to visit me after graduation  to tell me about the positive things that were going on in their lives now.  I had to chuckle when Dwayne told me during one of these visits  “Miss, I remember one day  in grade nine you just changed  and everything was better after that”. That day was the Day of Scrabble. That day was the day I made a positive connection with Sam and Dwayne.


I’ve found Parker J. Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach  (1998) very useful in helping me to continue to refine my philosophy of teaching.


I think it’s crucial to have a positive classroom climate so that I can do my best as a teacher and my students can do their best as students. For the moment, I’m going to set aside the question of what is it that teachers and students are supposed to do in the classroom. I’ll explore those questions another time in another post.

I have seen many different types of positive classroom environments. I’ve come to the conclusion after all these years a positive classroom environment is a function of the teacher’s personality and the students’ personalities; consequently, there are different types of positive classroom environments.

What do I think is a positive classroom environment? Well, for one thing I think it is a classroom environment that enables me to teach in an authentic manner so that I can be myself and not try to be someone I’m not. Consequently, one of the first things I need to do is to really know myself as a person. If you’ll like me you’ve probably taken some type of personality test during your undergrad or grad courses so you might already have a good idea what makes you tick. If not, you can always go online and find some tests that will help y6ou do that.

Over the years, I’ve taken oddles and oddles of professional development sessions and have found that I like having a classroom where students help create the positive environment. The Tribes training I took was especially helpful.

I’d like to share my way of helping to set a positive environment where I can teach in an authentic way. In a future post, I’ll talk about what I mean by being able to teach in an authentic way.

I begin by having the class create classroom agreements. I used to call the classroom agreements rules, but rules seem so top down, and I don’t want that. Some kids see red when they see the word “rule”. I want them to see green instead. I want students to buy into the classroom code of conduct, not rebel against it.

At the beginning of the semester we establish our behaviour agreements. Basically it boils down to attentive listening, appreciation, mutual respect and right to pass. You can view my PowerPoint for elaboration. I have written about my classroom agreements in an earlier post, but I’ll include it here for you.


I want the classroom agreements to be a result of collaboration so that the students will be more likely to buy into the code of conduct.

This is what I do
1. Tell students that since they are in grade 9, 10 or whatever, I know they’re experts at knowing what makes a classroom work because they’ve been in many so classrooms

2. Set up a placemat group activity that will ellict the students’ expertise

3. Ask students to take a few minutes to think about what makes a classroom work and then jot those things down on their section of the placemat.
4 Have students share their thoughts with group members.
5. Place four pieces of chart paper on the wall labeled mutual respect, attentive listening, appreciation, and right to pass. It’s amazing , everything seems to fall into these four categories.
6. Have each student choose two or three things that they think are the most important and write each one onto a separate sticky note.
7. Ask students to place their sticky notes onto one of the four pieces of chart paper according to where they think it belongs.
8. Discuss the results of the activity with the class noting how everything falls into one of the four categories.
9. Add my own stickies if I see that something has been omitted. I’m part of the class too.
10. Thank the students for their expert input and tell them that I think that what we have here will make our classroom work and ask them if they agree. Most will say they agree and that’s what I want.
11. Have students create posters illustrating the classroom agreements.
12. Review the agreements next day using the powerpoint presentation I made. That’s when I make sure everyone understands what kinds of behaviors each agreement includes.
13. Ask students if anyone would like to display their posters. I let them choose where, but ask that they make sure that each wall has some posters on it.

It’s interesting to see and hear what happens. Students will start to remind each other of our classroom agreements by saying things like no put downs, attentive listening , mutual respect and right to pass when someone is behaving inappropriately. It’s much more effective to cite the classroom agreements than to say stop talking while I’m teaching or stop calling him names etc. I even hear my students cite the agreements outside of the classroom when they’re walking in the halls . I love that because I want them to be proactive and advocate for themselves in and out of the classroom.


sight wordsHi everyone! Elona invited me to be a guest blogger, and I jumped at the chance! My name is Heather Rice, and  I write sight word songs. What’s a sight word song? It’s a song that spells out a sight word. I began writing sight word songs to help my daughter Sarah, who has Autism and moderate mental impairment.

Sarah was really struggling to learn her sight words. She was so frustrated that she began to pick at her skin with anxiety the minute the sight word cards came out.  I knew I needed a different approach. But what else could I try? When I thought about it, it occurred to me that the one thing she was good at remembering were the words to songs!  That’s when I began writing songs to spell out sight words.

I write my songs to the tunes of well known children’s songs, like “Row, row, row, your boat.”  I keep each song short, and I repeat the spelling of the sight word. Also, all of songs have a “hook.” Either the song is funny, or it tells a story. (Actually, most of my songs do both).

To help Sarah learn the song, I began making Power Point slides and worksheets to go with each song. Each song uses clipart to illustrate the song, and a great deal of the clipart was ordered especially to fit the song. Each song comes with 3-5 worksheets. Every CD also comes with a Power Point presentation that includes a slide for each song. I don’t charge extra for either the worksheets or the power point presentation that comes with each CD.

I hope you’ll listen to the sample  Sight Word SongsI have three different CD’s available. One for pre-k. One for kindergarten, and one for Ist grade. Each CD is $15.00, and has between 20-23 songs on it. You can purchase a sight word CD at: http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Sing-With-Me-Sight-Words-sarahs-Songs.
Thanks for listening!

Heather Rice


Comment by Elona Hartjes


Thanks for agreeing to be a guest writer on my blog.  

 Necessity is the mother of invention. Heather was inspired by necessity to create her sight word songs, Power Point  presentations, and the work sheets.  I’m delighted that Heather wrote me to tell me about her experience trying to teach her daughter sight words. the sight word songs she wrote, and the fact she is making her sight word songs  and supporting materials available to us  at the teachers- pay- teachers site. I believe in  differentiating instruction to honour students’ interests and strengths and that Heather’s CD’s and accompanying materials would be a valuable teaching tool to this end.

 I find Heather’s Sight Word Songs  very engaging. Just today, I heard an interview on the radio that talked about what a powerful teaching and learning tool songs can be for students of all ages. Using songs as an instructional tool is an excellent  way to differentiate instruction and honour a student’ s strengths.  In Sarah’s case, Heather honoured her daughter’s strength of remembering words to songs to help Sarah learn to read sight words.  I’m glad Heather has made her CD’s and support materials available to us at the teachers-pay-teachers online store. Teachers need to support one another.





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