Experts from the California Subject Matter Project (CSMP) share 3 meaning-making strategies you can use to engage students in your classroom.


Tim Dewar, Executive Director, California Writing Project, UC Santa Barbara

Hello, my name is Tim Dewar and I’m the Executive Director of the California Writing Project, one of the nine discipline-specific networks that are the California Subject Matter Projects. We work to provide the best professional learning and leadership opportunities to teachers in California. What a few of my colleagues and I hope to share with you in this short video is a couple of classroom activities that we’ve found help students learn. They can be used across grade levels and regardless of content. They’re really versatile.

The other thing about them that they share is the common purpose of helping students to make meaning or to comprehend subject manner. Students need (and like) to figure things out. When they’re given the opportunity to make sense of something and share that with other students, students engage. Engaged students learn more and are less likely to disrupt the learning of others. More meaning-making means less mischief-making.

“The three activities that we will share with you all prompt this kind of engaged meaning-making. They force students to grapple with ideas, their own and those of others, and find ways to communicate this thinking to others. It’s been the experience of teachers that these activities, and others of this kind that support thinking and meaning-making, lead to joyful learning. They provide just enough scaffolding for the students to take some risks and to reach new heights of understanding. Each of these activities has multiple opportunities for variety – a variety of inputs, a variety of outputs, and a variety of ways to succeed. But what doesn’t change is that all of them allow students to successfully engage in making sense of course content.

To start us off, Daina Yousif Weber will share with us the ‘Turn and Talk’ strategy she uses to get her ELA & AVID students sharing ideas. 

After that, we will hear from Chris Mullin, a high school history teacher, about a writing and thinking activity, ‘Concept Circles.’ 

Kate Bowen will follow with ‘Word of the Week,’ a vocabulary strategy she developed during her 35 years as an elementary school teacher. 

Emily Schell, the Executive Director of the California Global Education Project, will wrap things up with some ideas about how to use these approaches most effectively.

The Turn and Talk

Daina Yousif Weber, English and AVID Teacher, San Diego Unified School District, Teacher Leader, California Global Education Project

The Turn and Talk strategy provides students the opportunity to share their ideas and perspectives with one another before contributing to a larger class discussion or future class activity, rather than expecting students to possibly absorb information delivered from the teacher, the Turn and Talk strategy is part of a larger inquiry-based learning framework that allows students to explore open-ended questions and empowers them to make their own meaning by sharing and building upon one another’s ideas.

The Turn and Talk strategy is effective with students of all ages, studying all subjects for a variety of reasons. First, asking students to talk in pairs or small groups sets an expectation that every single student must contribute to the conversation as their partner or partners are relying on their participants. Second, the open-ended nature of the prompts make it possible for students to join the conversation in a way that makes sense for them. For example, students might analyze a prompt out loud. Ask clarifying questions, or simply answer the question. By giving children multiple opportunities to talk with other students, we can increase the likelihood that they are exposed to diverse perspectives, which slowly expands their own perspectives. Lastly, because the Turn and Talk strategy provides students with the opportunity to discuss content from their own point of view, students are able to bring in and build on their background knowledge in meaningful ways, which ultimately increases their confidence and helps them see that every single student is valuable to our classroom can be.

The Turn and Talk strategy can be implemented in a variety of ways depending on the task at hand, but it ultimately serves the same purpose of giving students the space to think critically about and make meaning around a topic with one or more students. 

The expectation is that each student brings new ideas to the conversation, whether that be their current analysis of a topic or a question that they may want to explore. Prior to implementing the strategy, it is crucial that teachers identify the intended learning outcomes for students, and that they gather the appropriate resources and sources that will help their students achieve the outcomes set out for them. Additionally, it is important to develop clear and intentional prompts that are open-ended and push students to both grapple with the content and develop their skills sets.

After determining the intended learning outcomes, resources, and prompts, it is imperative that accountability measures are put in place so that students know their contributions during the Turn and Talk experiences will be applied in future learning. This could include asking students to share their contributions and larger class discussion or asking them to elaborate on the discussion in writing.

Once these preparations are completed, teachers then need to determine what structures students will need in order to be engaged and successful during the Turn and Talk. Teachers may consider pairing students strategically taking into account their comfort level with speaking their content, knowledge levels, their interpersonal relationships, et cetera.

Next, it’s important to be intentional about the timing and telling students exactly how much time they have, prompting them as they go. Estimating how much time is needed is difficult at first, but my experience suggests that this gets easier over time as you get a better sense of how much your students need, and also how much is too much.

When first implementing this strategy, you might consider structuring the partner talks so that each student has a turn to talk and a turned to listen. As time goes by, teachers may want to remove that scaffold as students get better at managing their own conversation. 

Providing sentence starters is another way to scaffold the activity. As sometimes all students need is a few words to get their ideas flowing. As students become more aware and more comfortable and more proficient with Turn and Talk, teachers may want to incorporate note-taking tools in order to help them retain information. Ultimately, teachers will learn how to structure the turn and talk in a way that engages their students and elevates their thinking.

One important thing to remember when using this strategy is that teachers play the very important role of facilitator during student dialogue. As facilitator, it is helpful to review the prompt and task expectation with the class prior to sending them off to the task. As you review the prompt with the class, it is often helpful to ask students to break down the task and prompt in their own words in order to make sure they understand what the prompt is saying and what they’re expected to do.

As they dive into their discussions with peers, teachers should circle the room listening for and taking notes on insightful contributions that could be shared with the whole class. Teachers should also be sure to document who was sharing what so that they can call on those students to share to the whole class after smaller conversations have ended.

As students talk, it is helpful to give them frequent reminders regarding time and expectations. Teachers should try to avoid interjecting into student dialogue as much as possible as the goal is to have students drive the experience. That said, proximity and eye contact are great non-verbal ways to redirect students who are disengaged or off task, which will of course happen.

After the Turn and Talk time is up, it is important to ensure that students have had an opportunity to apply the knowledge they gained from the talk with their peers. It is also crucial to facilitate a debrief with students. While the debrief can be used to amplify valuable ideas and insights that came up regarding content, it should also make space for students to metacognitively reflect on their contributions to the process. There is so much meaningful learning that happens when we ask students to think about and discuss their own learning. 

Moreover, by referencing these comments and recognizing who made them in subsequent conversations, teachers can validate those students willing to take a risk by sharing their ideas with their peers and ultimately increase students learning. 

Lastly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, repeat, repeat, repeat. Just as students have to take risks for this strategy to be effective, teachers must also be willing to take risks. Many teachers feel uncomfortable using this strategy at first as it can feel chaotic or out of control. However, it is important to trust the process and embrace the productive struggle, reflecting on what challenges arise during implementation and developing improvements for next time. Soon enough, the structure will become automatic and students will step into the important roles that they play as co-teachers and learners in our direct classrooms.

Concept Circles

Chris Mullin, High School History Teacher, Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District.  Teacher Leader, California Writing Project

Hello, my name is Chris Mullin. I’m a high school history teacher, and I want to talk about Concept Circles. 

Concept Circles are something I use because as a teacher of everything from college prep to AP history, I love to have my students be able to pull together various pieces of evidence, weave them together in some kind of common theme. And so what’s nice about Concept Circles is, maybe there’s three good things about it.

 Number one, Concept Circles help students as a group, use their voice to essentially make generalizations that they can look at terms from history and pull them together.

 A second thing it does is when kids are working on Concept Circles, and when they’re looking around at other students, they engage in voice. They end up defending their position on why this piece of evidence is part of a larger theme there. 

When they’re doing that and I’m not doing that, I’m very pleased. I feel like, you know, this is good teaching. And then finally, it really helps literacy and composition skills. They’re basically learning to, later on, take these pieces of evidence and convert what was a discussion, into written material. 

I wanna talk about Concept Circles in my own classroom. And so for example, I very recently taught a lesson on the French Revolution and the French Revolution is a complex era and there are many, many terms from Equality Bread to the Thermidorian Reaction. These are big terms that kids need to learn. So whenever I’m introducing Concept Circles, I always, always, always do pre-teaching and the pre-teaching could be three days of exploration, or it could be 30 minutes, but there needs to be something that comes before. So that once we get into the making of the Concept Circles, the students will have content knowledge, that they’ll have these terms that they need to embed, but unless they know what these terms are, then they can’t really do it.

Okay. So the way that I would do this is I would introduce my lesson. I would gather the class together and I would basically hold up a blank Concept Circle and it’s a circle that has four quadrants in it. And I would say, look, I’m gonna put you into these small groups, and when you get into small groups, you get to take a look at this term list and I would show them the term list. And I would say these are terms that we’ve seen before, but in your group, you’re gonna choose any four terms and don’t communicate with other groups, you’re gonna pull ’em all together, choose any of these four terms, but the one proviso is that they have to somehow be linked together, that these four terms together must create some kind of thematic idea. And so in a minute, I’m gonna let you go, I’ll choose your groups for you, or you can choose your own there, and you’ll start working on it. 

Now, the way you’re work through this is, you’re gonna take your term, put one in each of the four quadrants, and then you’re gonna take crayons and markers and pens, and create fun, colorful images that represent it. Now, if it’s a person, you can draw a picture of a person. If it’s a guillotine, you can draw a picture of a guillotine. If it’s Equality Bread, you can draw a love of bread. But whatever it is, you need to have those two together: the term, as well as the image there.

And then while the kids are doing this, I walk around, I make sure that they’re obviously on task, ‘cause I’m trying to be a good teacher, but also I make sure that they’ve selected four terms, that the group has had a discussion about which four term should go there, and probably most importantly, although actually it’s not necessary – it’s not a bad idea – is to see if they have a common theme in mind. Did they just randomly grab four terms sort of to get the job done or did they actually have a plan? This is kind of a fun part, this is the creative part, and once we reach a point where they’ve all completed these beautiful works here with colorful images and words inside, I bring the class back together and I say, all right, now we’re gonna do the next round. 

And in the next round, you’re gonna walk around with a team answer sheet. And essentially on the team answer sheet, there will be, the word Circle A, Circle B, as many circles as there are around the room. And taking your team answer sheet, you’re actually gonna get up and go on a gallery walk. I have the students take a piece of blue painters tape and stick up their Concept Circles around the room, and then I put each of the groups at a different Concept Circle and I’d say, go. And what they do is, when they’re there, in their small group, they look at the Concept Circles of their peers, they discuss the four terms that they’ve learned about before and now they’re seeing together and they kind of negotiate and defend why these four terms might mean liberty, or tyranny, or revolution, or, you know, the enlightenment – just some kind of common theme.

And once they’ve negotiated and discussed what four terms they’re presented with, they write down their guess on their Circle A, Circle B sheet, and then every few minutes they move to the next one, and they move to the next one, and move to the next one. 

So what we’re seeing going on here is there’s been pre-teaching and now there’s terms related to that pre-teaching and then there’s some art going on, and now they’re actually going around the room, using their voice to having just created their own circle, now trying to figure out what the minds of their fellow students are doing. 

Now, why visuals, as well as terms? Visuals are very good at communicating ideas, and sometimes kids can see a term, but really only when you have a visual attached to it, do you get a full sense as a teacher about maybe what they think that term means. But also it’s a really good way of helping them convey maybe in a non-literary way their understanding of what a term might mean. And you get some interesting interpretations that come out of it. Once that’s done, we all come back to center. I take down all of the Concept Circles, and then we kind of do a big debrief. 

I’ll hold one up, we’ll look at the terms. I’ll ask to the various groups, “What did you think it was? What did you think it was? Why was it?” I go back to the original group and they’re like, “Oh, no, no, no. we were absolutely thinking, that this had to do with, you know, the monarchy…” or something like that. So what you end up with is, well, rather than, you know, be lecturing all the time, students are gonna be able to negotiate with each other, share their understanding together, they’re gonna be able to use art and physical movement, and then ultimately engage in a debrief. 

Now Concept Circles don’t have to just be for history. You could easily do it in a Science class and I’m almost certain it would be very nice in some kind of an English class. Even probably Math class could find a way of using it there. So I’m Chris Mullin, I’m a history teacher and those are Concept Circles.

WOW (Word of the Week)

Kate Bowen, Elementary School Teacher (ret.), Davis Joint Unified School District. Consultant, California History-Social Science Project

It’s really hard for teachers to be out of their classrooms.  Knowing that there is a competent substitute armed with some tried and true activities to keep students engaged, makes the whole experience a wee bit easier. Today I’d like to share a strategy that I have used throughout my 35-year teaching career.  This assignment can be used in any classroom or grade level and any area of the curriculum, and would be especially good for long-term substitutes. I call this assignment the WOW! – or the Word of the Week.  

For the WOW!, select a content word or phrase – a person, place, idea, or event – for the students.  It is helpful if the students are familiar with that person, place, idea, or event. Then discuss the WOW! together, drawing on the students’ knowledge, brainstorming ideas, facts, and examples. I find it helpful to record the brainstorming session on the whiteboard and ask students to take notes on a sticky for their own use.

Then identify the part of speech for the WOW! You might note that a part of speech may not be familiar to younger students. Distribute a blank 8½ by 11-inch paper to each student.  I like the papers to be three-hole punched in advance, creating a margin for student work. Students will keep their WOWs! for the year in a portfolio.

Explain that students will be creating a scene with the WOW! as its center, weaving in the part of speech, and an original sentence correctly using the word and showing their understanding.  Students should aim to create a piece of art, using creative lettering, outlining all artwork, and of course choosing their direction when coloring.  Students may select their own medium – colored pencils, markers, sharpies, etc. to complete the assignment. The entire page should be filled with the scene, tying all of the required components together. This is a good time to remind the students of the necessary components of the WOW! Have students keep this copy of the page in their WOW! portfolios for reference.

One does not need to be a fabulous artist to create a quality WOW!  Having access to stencils, for lettering help, and a variety of images of the person, place, idea, or event will guide students in their choice of scene.  Students are, of course, welcome to do their own research for image ideas. Here is a sample of a student who took advantage of a lettering stencil. These students completed their WOWs! – “nation” – with completely different scenes. Sometimes you have an over-achiever who just hits the ball out of the park week after week. This assignment can be modified for students who are hesitant artists or who have limited fine motor skills.  One way to modify the WOW! is to have students complete a Google slide with all of the components, adding animation for effect.

Another modification that may be useful, especially to long-term substitutes, would be to work with the support staff on site and frontload the WOWs for those students who receive English Language support, Special Education, or reading services.  Frontloading the WOW! for these students will establish academic language, provide grammar and vocabulary support, and develop writing skills, not to mention foster confidence in the classroom.

I would allow one full week for students to complete their WOWs.  This encourages students to put forth their best efforts on the assignment.  I usually had students work on their WOWs for about 20 minutes per day while I was reading aloud. Each WOW! is worth 10 points, and is used as a mini assessment to determine understanding of historical content.  Corrected WOWs! are returned to students who keep the assignments in chronological order, creating a WOW! portfolio for the school year. I hope you find this strategy useful. And thank you for your dedication to our students.


Emily Schell, Executive Director, California Global Education Project, University of San Diego

As educators, we all know how challenging and also how rewarding it can be to serve as a substitute teacher. I look back at the beginning of my own career as a substitute teacher and I remain grateful for those experiences, which made me a better classroom teacher and also school administrator. I believe I would have been an even better substitute teacher, if I had been introduced to these meaning-making strategies – especially for those situations where there were no sub plans left behind. 

We hope that you will find these three strategies helpful in the work that you do. We hope that you will try these meaning-making strategies and others to enhance student learning in your teaching placements. On behalf of the California Subject Matter Project, I thank you for your time and attention, as well as the important work that you do to support student learning in California’s classrooms.

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The Turn and Talk

Daina Yousif Weber, English and AVID teacher in San Diego Unified School District, tells us how to apply the “Turn and Talk” strategy to empower students to make their own meaning by exploring open-ended questions, sharing their thoughts and perspectives, and building upon each other’s ideas.

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