What Innovation Looks Like in an Elementary School

To be honest, I was lost. Elementary teaching was something so new to me when I took a job last year as a K-12 Technology Staff Developer. And still to this day, I don’t feel completely comfortable helping elementary teachers as much as I do middle and high school teachers.

I taught middle school. I taught high school. I’ve written curriculum for those levels, and connected with many educators who teach at those levels…learning so much along the way.

So, what did I do with this new scary K-5 area? I reached out online. I found teachers who were sharing what they were doing in their classes through blogs and social media and podcasts. What I realized the past year is that innovation in an elementary school revolves around many of the same concepts and topics as the secondary levels…but it’s not always about technology.

That is the biggest misconception we have with innovation in education. Technology doesn’t necessarily lead to innovation. Instead, technology often allows for new ways of teaching and learning…but only if used for the right purpose. Here are a few of my favorite ways educators are innovating at the elementary school (with or without technology):

Matt B. Gomez – Kindergarten

My daughter is headed to Kindergarten this September, and I hope she gets a teacher like Matt. I’ve been following his blog for over a year now, and I’m consistently impressed by the work he does…but also how he approaches teaching kindergarten.

While Matt does use technology in the classroom, I don’t think that is what solely makes him innovative. How about the fact that he does not use behavioral or class management charts…and doesn’t give out any rewards!

I also do not use any rewards or a behavior management system in my class. I have written about my reasoning and journey to remove rewards from the class (read here) and it really has been a journey. I started with sticker charts and a treasure box just like most teachers. I also have used many different forms of behavior charts…The big “light bulb” moment for me was when I realized that most behavior management systems are a form of control. The teacher is the one in control and I want my kids to learn to be in control. They learn by practicing and through mistakes not by being managed. I may have to work a little harder without stickers and treasure digs but in the end the relationships built and ability to customize how I handle every situation has led to a much healthier environment and happier classroom.

Matt’s only classroom rule is “Be Brave“. How can we innovate our classroom rules and behavior management techniques?

Erin Klein – 2nd Grade

Erin’s classroom re-design really inspired me to think about learning spaces throughout the schools in our district. This summer I’ll be sharing how Erin redesigned her space for a new and improved learning environment.

Erin talks about her new room:

I try to keep everything at eye level for the students.  Additionally, I try to stick with a color scheme that is not distracting.  I believe that a brain-friendly environment is important to enhance each learner’s potential.  My room has a home feel so that students feel comfortable as soon as they enter.  I avoid the flourscent lighting.  Instead, I use the natural light.  When it is darker outside, I have several lamps around the room that we use.  Our room is not bright but rather has a relaxing and natural color. The aesthetics help to set the tone for our learning environment.

If you’d like to learn more about this innovative room design and how you can do it as well, check out Erin’s post on it (via Scholastic) and more on her blog (with pictures!).

Todd Nesloney – 5th Grade

Todd has been a huge help for me in learning the in’s and out’s of Augmented Reality and Flipped learning, but his recent “Math Fair” made me actually want to go back to elementary math class again (Disclaimer: I’m a former English teacher so Math is a touchy subject ha).

You definitely need to go and check out Todd’s full post on how to run your own Math Fair and what his looked like this year, but here are some highlights:

They were told they had to have at least 3 visuals and 6 ways math was involved with their topic.  The term “visuals could be interpreted however they wanted.  Whether that was making a poster, bringing items, making items, whatever!  The point of this project was to have fun, share your passions, and show how math is everywhere.  The only boundaries were the ones you set for yourself!

We had the Math Fair Thursday evening from 6pm-7pm in our Cafeteria (and on our bus ramp for those who brought “larger” visuals haha).  This evening fair was mandatory.  It was part of their grade.  I feel it’s important to have things like this, that kids were notified of over a month in advance, that they have to attend.  Out of my 72 current students, only 3 did not show up (and we had over 200 adults attend this year again!)  For my area, and how rural we are, those were GREAT numbers!

This year we even broadcast our entire Math Fair live via Ustream (big thanks to my wife, Liz) and it’s all available for you to see HERE.  I loved using Ustream because not only did it allow us to share our Math Fair with the world, but now it’s a recording to share with all the parents and family members who weren’t able to attend!

Todd included choice, presentation skills, and technology into a huge Math Fair that brought the community together. How can we bring our community into the learning process on a regular basis? What might that look like at your school?

Paul Solarz – 5th Grade

Paul just completed his fifth round of Passion Time with his 10 and 11-yr old students! He is a go to resource on Passion Time, Genius Hour, and Inquiry-Based learning at the elementary level. Paul recently blew me away with a concept called “Quality Boosters” for critical feedback in the classroom.

He explained it to the class like this:

In our class, we don’t care much about grades.  We don’t care much about who’s better than whom.  We care about working together to become the strongest “Me” we can each become.  We welcome people’s opinions about our work, because when someone takes the time to give us their opinion (even when it’s negative), they are helping us improve in some way.  And our goal is constant improvement!  We don’t care where we start from – we care where we finish.  We don’t care who is performing better than us.  We care that we are performing to our highest level possible!

Today, we are going to watch each others’ Passion Project videos and read their KWHLAQ Charts and Reflections.  We are going to do so with a critical eye – one that looks for things that could be improved.  We aren’t going to act judgmental where we sound like we know everything and others know nothing.  We won’t put anyone down or make anyone feel stupid.  We are going to identify areas where our peers can improve to help them be the best that they can be.  We will call our critical feedback, “Quality Boosters,” because our goal will be to boost the quality of each others’ Passion Projects!

How can we innovate the way we give and receive feedback in our classrooms? Both as a teacher and as students? Paul’s class is leading the way in not only passion time, but also two key areas for development: self-reflection and peer feedback.

Pernille Ripp – 5th Grade

Last year more than 30 countries on 6 different continents were represented as well as more than 144,000 students in the “Global Read Aloud“. Pernille’s idea of having students across the globe reading the same book has come to reality in ways hard to believe. Yet, the innovation in her classroom doesn’t stop with the GRA. I’ve been looking at Pernille’s blog as a go-to resource for teachers looking to “assess without grades” at the elementary level. She has a great resource put together for “limited grades” you should check out, and the idea is explained here:

How we run our classrooms directly affect how students feel about themselves. How they feel about their own capabilities and their own intelligence.  I fail all the time in front my kids, not on purpose, I try stuff and it doesn’t work and we talk about it.  And yet,  I am not perfect either.  I catch myself in using practice problems as assessment, where really they should be viewed just as practice.  I praise the kids that get it right and sometimes don’t praise the ones that kept persisting but never reach a correct answer.  I don’t alway have enough time to explore all of the options so I guide the kids toward success knowing that some venues will lead them to failure.  I shield them from it sometimes because I don’t want to crush their spirits.

We have to stand up for our children and we have to turn this notion around that failure is the worst thing that can happen.  Failure is not the worst; not trying is.  We have to keep our kids believing in themselves and having enough confidence to try something.  If we don’t we are raising kids that follow all of the rules, that never take risks, that never discover something new.  And that failure is too big to remedy.

I urge you to look at the grading process and see what can be changed to allow for failure as a risk worth taking. I know my teaching practice changed forever when I gave a project that had no grade assigned to it.

Bill Selak – 2nd Grade

Bill Selak has taught Elementary music and kindergarten, but currently works as a second grade teacher. As I’ve seen my own daughter become more interested in music, I’ve taken a closer look at the “eduawesome” work Bill has been doing in his school. Bill is consistently using Video and Music to innovate. Two quick examples that made my head spin:

Did you know how easy it is to Create Interactive YouTube Videos? Bill breaks it down in this post and explains how it can be used in the classroom:

Videos are traditionally linear and directive. In the classroom, videos are designed to either dispense information or teach the viewer a new skill. However, great lessons are rarely passive. Using the annotations feature in YouTube, teachers can create videos that require participation. At its most basic, students are given four choices, and they select the correct answer. If an incorrect choice is made, students watch a new video that reteaches the concept. If the correct choice is made, the initial video links a new video that shows the next step, or the next problem. Going deeper, the first video can link to several choices, and each of those choices can link to several choices.

His recent session on “Songwriting Across the Curriculum” also caught my attention as a smart way to teach difficult concepts and break it down for students. I’ve done this in my own classroom, creating a “Literary Device Rap Song” with teachers on our 8th grade team…and that video is still played to this day!

What Innovation Looks Like

Victoria Olson – Grade 3/4 Teacher

Victoria is a “Tech Teacher on a Mission” but as I’ve been following her blog for ideas I’ve seen innovation pop up in many more areas than just technology. She recently wrote a post on “Student Governance” and how something as trivial as a class meeting, can really lead to innovative practice:

The concept is simple: a class meeting. That’s it. Seemingly, it’s nothing groundbreaking. But, like anything, it’s all about how you frame the learning that makes it so powerful.

As an aside, I purposefully set up a lot of unfair and unstructured environments in my classroom that allow students to design the rulings within the space. For example, the job chart is a hot mess of disorganization in September, there is no set regulations on turn-taking in our classroom comfortable reading space, and there is certainly no order as to who gets the high honour of turning off the lights when we leave the classroom. These are things that are very important in the eyes of my students as they can cause social duress… Small people, small fights.

So I use Class Meeting as a place for my students to govern their own school experience. The activity is designed to allow them to make rules within the classroom to help it run more effectively.  These can include regulations that may positively impact their safety, learning, or social experience. My students run the Class Meeting session completely from start to finish. I model this at the beginning of the school year by using a loose framework of Robert’s Rules of Order.

The best part about this type of meeting is the ownership students have in their classroom. Are we giving students enough ownership of their own learning…and learning space? Think about some ways we can involve them in this process.

Joe Mazza – Former Elementary Principal/Current K-12 Director of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership

Joe’s work as an Elementary Principal has always resonated with me. Partially because he works at a neighboring school district, and also because it makes so much sense. Edcamp has grown to new heights in the past few years, as this grassroots movement of educators joining together for professional development on their own time has become a key part of moving our practice forward.

As an Elementary Principal, Joe was part of a group that brought the idea and philosophy behind Edcamp to our parents:

The ParentCamp experience, by design, is a hybrid “un-conference” opportunity for parents and teachers to come together and model the four core beliefs highlighted in Beyond the Bakesale. The experience levels the playing field, putting all stakeholders in a circle for actual, face-to-face discussion about what is best for kids. It’s important to understand the difference between a traditional conference and the un-conference feel we worked to bring to ParentCamp.

On Saturday, April 27, 2013, @KnappElementary hosted the first Parent Camp “unconference” for parents and educators. It’s called an unconference because the event relies upon the expertise and perspective of the entire room, not just the main presenter like the typical stand and deliver conference. Every adult within the session brings an important and unique perspective to contribute to sharing strategies and ideas to benefit student learning, teaching and parenting.

What new ways can we involve parents in the teaching and learning process? How can we use their voice and input, and value their contributions?

What Next?

It’s been amazing to see how elementary teachers in my school district are innovating in their classrooms. As I begin to work more with these teachers in the next year I’m excited to share what I’ve learned from other teachers around the world.

There are many elementary teachers, leaders, and learners who are innovative right now in education. And there are many who have changed education through their work in the past. As someone who is constantly looking for new ways to reach our students, I urge you to share what you are doing in your classroom and school online. Are you or someone you know innovating at the Elementary level? If so, please add it to the comments so we can all learn together.

Photo Credit: johngirton.me via Compfight cc

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Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • Kelly floyd says:

    Check out Burlington mass elem schools. Currently we are 1:1 grade 1 and 4-12. We will be fully 1:1 iPads this fall from k thru 12.
    We have a growing you tube channel at memorialbps and consider our learners the best resource to lead us through this amazing journey. My blog is http://www.mrsfloydslibrarynews.blogspot.com

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Love this! Just checked out the YouTube channel and it is full of videos I will be sharing with my teachers. Thanks for sharing and this is so helpful!

  • Pam Hernandez says:

    Great examples and stories of inspirational teachers. I’m pretty impressed by #eduawesome Bill Selak as well.

  • Honored to be mentioned in your post AJ! Thanks for being a constant inspiration for me as well!

  • Theresa says:

    I follow and learn from all of the folks you mention! I would add to follow @KsmithSchool on all of their social media channels!

  • Joan Soble says:

    What an amazing set of stories and examples this post includes. Like the author of this post, I’m also basically a secondary-school “teacher supporter” who has needed to develop knowledge that can help me support elementary school teachers, too.

    What I’m especially loving here is the obvious respect for and inclusion of so many different stakeholder’s needs, preferences, and ideas.

    I’ve been working closely on a project with the Right Question Institute for the last couple of weeks; I’m wondering if any of you have experienced or have used their Question Formulation Technique (check out .

    I’m thinking that the QFT might be another great “knife to have in the drawer” when it comes to “unstructuring” a Parent Camp unconference, a class meeting, a discussion of limited grades, and Passion Project generation, just to give a few examples.

    One more thing: love the Global Read Aloud: looking forward to sharing this post with a group of educators I’m part of that’s very concerned with promoting global learning and global community.

    Thanks for inspiring me and arming me with great examples for sharing!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for sharing the QFT. It’s new to me and I’m definitely going to check it out. Global Read Aloud is such a fantastic way to connect, I hope you join!

  • Great post! How about a sequel for 6-12 teachers? 😉

  • This is a great introduction to some of the leading elementary school teachers that I also try and follow to see what’s happening in their classrooms. I also teach 5th grade so you hit upon my guides with @pernilleripp @PaulSolarz and @TechNinjaTodd. Your format of introduction and then choosing some focus on one project or approach makes this great to share with other teachers that ask who to follow and learn from for their PLN.

  • […] What Innovation Looks Like in an Elementary School – A.J. Juliani […]

  • Erin Klein says:

    Thank you so much for including me in your post. What a thoughtful post filled with wonderful information.

    Erin Klein

  • What a great post! Another person I love is Kathy Cassidy from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. She is a 1st grade teacher doing tremendous things. See @kathycassidy, kathycassidy.com and mscassidysclass.edublogs.org. Love Burlington, MA folks too! Pine Glen has some amazing things going on.

  • […] What Innovation Looks Like in an Elementary School – A.J. Juliani […]

  • Erika Kersey says:

    I teach Gifted Students in grades 3-5 and for the last two years have held an “Innovation Fair” for my 4th and 5th graders. It is like a science fair but adds a problem solving element. The kids choose a topic of their choice, with the help of a “What I can’t stop talking about!” questionnaire. They then have to research their topic and come up with a problem they feel should be addressed based upon the research. They then come up with a solution. The project has multiple components, first the research element which requires a research paper that also describes the problem and solution, second they must create a model of the “solution” accompanied by a tri-fold board illustrating key ideas, and the problem solving process, last the presentation which is 3-5 min and can include a power-point. The kids practice presenting in class and then do a school-wide “Innovation Fair” where other classes are invited. I encourage the “audience” to ask questions to the presenters and it is great to hear the inquiry going on from peer to peer. It has been an amazing experience for all involved and encourages creativity, risk-taking, commitment, and more than I can describe here. I have community involvement in managing the “Fair” as I typically have about 40-50 kids participating. As Todd Nesloney’s math fair (which I want to do too!!) this is primarily an at-home project. We do have time for some research but most of my students go beyond what we do in school. Those students whom I teach writing to do write the research paper in class. They have three months to complete this assignment and it ends our year on a high note! I don’t have a cool blog or website but am happy to share this concept with anyone who would like to try it!

  • Will Wenninger says:

    As a high school teacher for over 22 years, the idea of an elementary school terrifies me. Some of the ideas in the above passage would be difficult to adapt. For example, the concept of no grades. When our school went away from class rank a few years ago, parents had a fit. Because of the competitive nature of out students (most of them, anyway) this would be a hard sell. But, the concept of giving students choices is one I often use. I let them decided when tests and papers will be sure (i even allow them to ask for extensions if they advocate for themselves) and I also design projects that allow the students a ‘menu” of options for the project.

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