By Karla Hilliard

In this past week’s AP Lit chat on Twitter, we discussed our proverbial bag of teaching tricks, appropriately dubbed “Tricks of the Trade.” It was a rich discussion with many, many reliable and exciting strategies. We chatted about our best tricks for creating opportunities for movement in our classrooms, helping students approach a difficult text, tricks for maintaining our own sanity, and our reactions to this strategy by the amazing Sarah Brown Wessling.

All Grades / All Subjects / Engagement

What emerged in our chat were strategies to truly engage students, to hook them in simple, easy-to-implement ways. I believe when teachers are equipped with reliable protocols that actively involve students in their own learning, everybody wins.

Here are three of my favorite no-fail teaching tricks:

  • Chalk Talk

The easiest trick of them all.

  1. Post a question, idea, image, or line from the text on the board.
  2. Ask students to have a “silent discussion” about the given topic. Comments, questions, drawings, lines connecting ideas, asterisks, exclamation points, and questions are all fair game for the this class chat.
  3. Invite students to come up to the board and respond to the prompt.
  4. After about five minutes of “talking”, pull focus as a class and discuss the most interesting ideas that emerge.

Students who remain seated are required to remain silent, but I encourage them to watch as the discussion unfolds and plan a response. I also encourage these more reluctant students to star an idea they think is important or to identify the patterns they see.

This activity is perfect as an anticipatory set or even a bellringer. It’s also dead easy and requires almost no prep work. Now, that’s a magic trick!

  • Annotation Stations

This activity is a fan favorite. And it may be the trickiest of all the tricks. Annotation stations allow students to talk, move, collaborate, AND think through a passage. What’s not to love?

The directions are simple:

  1. Print out five or six chewy, thought-provoking passages.
  2. Post them to some chart paper.
  3. Ask students to  move into small groups and provide students with cups of markers.
  4. Give students a set time and have them mark up the passage.
  5. Have students move from table-to-table, chart-to-chart to continue and extend annotations.


A classroom example of Annotation Stations using a passage from Lord of the Flies.

After groups have made it through most or all of the charts, I tack on three more stepsfirst gallery walk (another great trick!) and star the most interesting comment or insight on each chart, then return to their original passage and evaluate the annotations. and finally share out with the class what their discovered through their annotations.

What I love about this approach is that not only do diverse and interesting ideas emerge., all students’ voices are heard.

Plus, you get to walk around, chat with students about their findings, and largely stay out of their hair. I call that a win!

  • Philosophical Chairs 

This activity is tried and true and is on my class’s top requested list. I first learned this strategy through the AVID program, which I taught a class of in another district. The long and short of it is this:

  1. Give students some fairly provocative topics or statements that are thematically connected to their reading (e.g. For Of Mice and Men — euthanasia, the reality of dreams, and the power of loneliness), then have them agree or disagree with each. From there…
  2. Ask students to move to one side of the room or the other depending upon their response. I typically designate Agree, Disagree, and On-the-Fence sides of the room. Then…
  3. Have students take turns discussing their thoughts and ideas about the topics. If any student is particularly persuasive and changes someone else’s mind, he or she switches sides of the room.

I also provide the following rules:

– Only one person speaks at a time.
– Talk to one another and not to me and use one another’s first names.
– Participate in the discussion at least one time and actively listen.

This activity is such a solid way of incorporating movement and speaking and listening. Healthy conversations emerge and students generally enjoy themselves. And that’s a class I want to be in!

So, WVCTE is wondering…what’s in your teacher bag of tricks? Leave us a comment,Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook

Karla Hilliard teaches STEM Academy English and AP Literature and Composition at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV. She has been a classroom teacher for 11 years. When she isn’t teaching, you can find Karla hanging with family, cooking up a good meal, reading up on educational trends, crocheting soft things, or eating spoonfuls of peanut butter.

Karla serves as Executive Vice President and Head of of Secondary Affairs for WVCTE. See what’s happening in her classroom at or connect with her on Twitter @karlahilliard.

Categories: Blog

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