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Back-to-School: Guided Discovery

Do you know The First Six Weeks of School by Paula Denton and Roxann Kriete?  I love this book!  I got it early in my teaching career and it’s one of the few books that I pulled out to reference EVERY YEAR!

Back to School: Guided Discovery of School Tools

The main philosophy of this book is that taking time to shape the learning environment at the beginning of the year pays off for the rest of the year.  It has lots of ideas for activities, discussions, and procedures to help establish a warm and productive classroom.  One of the most beneficial ideas for me was the idea of guided discovery.

Guided discovery is a focused, purposeful, yet playful technique teachers use to introduce materials, areas, or activities to students.  A teacher might use a guided discovery to introduce a learning center, such as the library or computer area; a specific material, such as a box of crayons or compass; or a process, such as journal writing or quiet time.

A teacher may have any of the following objectives in mind when doing a guided discovery:

  • To excite and motivate children by exploring possibilities
  • To stretch individual students toward involvement in new areas of learning
  • To guide or deepen the understanding of materials and activities
  • To encourage the sharing of ideas among children for how a material or area might be used
  • To establish a common language and vocabulary
  • To generate rules and procedures for the care of materials and spaces
  • To teach or reinforce guidelines for working cooperatively

(From The First Six Weeks of School by Paula Denton and Roxann Kriete)

Sounds awesome, right??  I sure think it is–it totally changed the way I approach the beginning of the school year.  I think teachers who’ve taught for a while do some version of this naturally when they’re launching a new year, but having a systematic way of introducing materials or spaces in our room makes a difference in how efficiently our class operates all year long.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Before: One of the first-day-of-school activities usually involved coloring.  I told students where their crayons are stored, gave directions to complete the page, and they got to work.

Now: I pull out a box of crayons and lead a discussion about appropriate use and expectations.  I teach them what to do with a broken crayon, lost crayons, and crayon paper scraps.  I let them use their crayons and then we reflect on how well they followed directions.

Don’t think it makes a difference to introduce crayons?

Imagine it’s October and the students are supposed to be coloring.  Isaac finds a stray brown crayon on the floor.  He comes to find you to ask what to do.  Jessie is supposed to be coloring a pumpkin, but can’t find an orange crayon.  She spends time wandering before finding you to ask for help.  At the end of the day, you find a pile of green wrapper shreds on the floor.  You pick them up so the custodian doesn’t give you grief and make a note to talk to Alex about what to do with crayon peelings.

You’ve now taught 3 students how to manage crayons.  And as you address issues during the next few months, you will be given opportunities to teach the other 25 students.

This is not good use of your time!  It is not good use of your students’ time!  Although it feels frustratingly slow when you’re itching to get that first math unit underway, it actually saves time in the long run to introduce classroom materials formally.  Teach it right from the beginning, or you’ll be teaching it all year long!

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When I’m launching students into an exploration of a material, I follow 6 steps.  They aren’t the official Guided Discovery Lesson steps, but they’re the steps that best meet my goals for doing this activity.  The steps are:

  1. Introducing
  2. Establishing use
  3. Generating standards
  4. Exploring and observing
  5. Reflecting and sharing
  6. Caring for materials

Below is an example of how these steps may look in action.  The teacher is setting up guidelines for using scissors.

1. Introducing

(This can be as simple or elaborate as you’d like.  In this scenario, the teacher is using a more elaborate introduction.)

The teacher has a pair of dull tipped, closed scissors in an open top shoebox.  I have something in this box that we will be using in our class.  You can feel it, but don’t guess what is.  Instead, just tell one word that describes what you feel.

The teacher walks from student to student holding the box above the students’ eye level so they can’t see inside.  She moves quickly so students don’t lose focus.  After everyone has felt it she reviews some of the words the students suggested: cold, metal, smooth, holey, etc.  Have you figured out what’s in the box, yet?  On the count of three, everyone tell me what they think it is.  Ready?  1,2,3…

2. Establishing Use

Back to School: Guided Discovery of School Tools

The teacher gathers the students back at the rug.  Raise your hand if you can tell me one way we use scissors?  The students share their ideas.  Because she wants to be able to refer back to this discussion at a later date, the teacher notes the students’ contributions on a chart.

If a student suggests a use that’s already on the chart, the teacher acknowledges the contribution.  She points to the line where the suggestion and says: You’re right. We can use scissors to cut out snowflakes.

3. Generating Standards

How can we use the scissors responsibly?  Again the teacher notes the students’ suggestions on a chart.  The students begin a round of, “We don’t cut ____.”  (We don’t cut hair, we don’t cut books, we don’t cut shoelaces…students will get very creative about this).  Rather than listing 500 things not to cut, the teacher acknowledges the suggestion and redirects it.  You’re right, we don’t cut erasers.  What should we cut?  Yes, we only cut paper.  She adds only cut paper to the chart.  When the next student suggests, “We don’t cut shirts,” she does the same thing.  You’re right, we don’t cut shirts.  What should we cut?  Yes, we only cut paper. She points to the line on the chart where it’s already written.

Phrasing rules in the positive keeps the focus on what students CAN do instead of punishing what they shouldn’t.  Also, a positively stated rule (only cut paper) covers more behaviors than 50 negative rules (don’t cut___, don’t cut___).  If you had to list all the “do nots,” you’d be there until January.

At this point, the teacher makes sure to include the steps to her specific classroom procedures.  She models for students and has one or two students model for the class while she gives feedback.  Then she adds to the chart, “Only get the scissors when the teacher says” and “Carry scissors with the tips down.”

4. Exploring and Observing

The teacher could open this time up for a general exploration of scissors.  She could give them paper and let them cut all they want.  In this case, she has a specific task in mind.  She wants them to practice cutting different lines: zigzags, swirls, etc.  She explains the task and sends a few students at a time to pick up scissors and take them back to their desks.  She provides feedback as the students follow her directions.  Did you see how Sasha walked right over to the scissor basket?  Notice how Jamal is carrying his safely by carrying them pointing down.  Older students may not appreciate this public praise for following directions.  Instead, try having students rate their behavior.  Give me a thumbs up if you walked with the blades pointing down.

Back to School: Guided Discovery of School Tools

Once everyone has scissors, she distributes the paper and lets the students start working.  She wanders the room giving feedback.  I can tell you’re trying really had to stay on the line.  She corrects any misuse now to prevent it becoming habit.  Keep your thumb on top of the scissors.

5. Reflection and sharing

Once everyone is finished, she has them return the scissors to the basket and bring their papers to the rug.  She has them sit in a circle this time so they can see each other.  Also, this means there’s room for students to rest their papers on the floor rather than playing with them.

She lets students share their work with a partner and may choose 2 or 3 to share with the group.  For young children (or small groups), it may be more beneficial to let everyone take a turn sharing what they did to use the scissors responsibly.

After they’ve shared, she asks What did you notice about using the scissors?  She adds the students suggestions to her chart.

She’ll save the chart her class has created so that a few months down the road, when someone misuses the scissors, she can pull out the chart and have the student refer to it.

6. Caring for Materials

If students haven’t cleaned up yet, she would have them do it now, but the scissors are all back where they belong, so she goes on.  She focuses her students’ attention on their plans going forward.  What will you do next time we get out the scissors?

Back to School: Guided Discovery of School Tools

Yes, it took some time to do this lesson.  And it will take time to introduce the rest of your classroom tools: glue, markers, pencils,…!  But now her students know her expectations.  They have a clear understanding of how things run in their new classroom.  They will rise to the occasion and there will be fewer behavior issues.


Want to give Guided Discovery a try?

Click here to download a FREE Guided Discovery of Pencils!


If you’re reading this thinking This is great information, but where was it a month ago?  We’ve been back in school 3 weeks! Don’t worry–it’s not too late!  Pick the top 5 tools that your students use the most.  Carve out 20 minutes a day for the next week.  Introduce one a day and by the end of the week, your class will be operating at a whole new level!  And don’t forget that you can use this process any time during the year.  If you come back from winter break and find your students are using their reading sticky notes for paper airplanes, use one of these lessons to refocus their behavior.  Problem solved!

You don’t need anything special to introduce your classroom tools using this guided discovery format.  There were plenty of years when I made do with what was handy.  I had a pirate themed classroom for awhile, so I found a random pirate coloring page to introduce crayons.  Before that I used a shape coloring page for several years.  But the more I’ve been thinking about this, the more I thought it would be nice to have a way for students to explore that supports the teaching of procedures.

That thinking lead me to create the School Tools Guided Discovery pack.  It contains student pages to support the introduction of 20 common school tools and classroom areas.  The top half of the page has room for students to record expectations and their plans for being responsible.  The bottom half of the page is for the student exploration.  There’s also room for students to rate how well they followed directions from 1-5 stars.

This pack is bursting with resources.  Besides the student pages there are:

  • EDITABLE lesson plans for 20 school tools + 1 blank page (in color and black and white)
  • 3 sample lesson plans that outline how to use this process in the classroom
  • list of suggested activities adaptable for any introduction
  • charts for noting student suggestions about using 20 school tools (in color and black and white)
  • pieces for assembling large anchor charts
  • binder cover (for storing completed charts)
  • student work packet cover (if you choose to assemble the pages into a packet)
  • 8 simplified student pages for differentiation or use later in the year
  • 30-pages of teacher tips and suggestions

Back to School: Guided Discovery of School Tools


Are you ready to dive in with Guided Discovery this year?

Click here to check out our full Guided Discovery of School Tools resource.


Check out our recent FB Live where we discussed how we use Guided Discovery to introduce school tools in our classroom. Click play to watch.

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