top of page
  • Writer's pictureKevin Butler

Active Learning - Part 1

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

Hey there, WELCOME to the second BLOG post of Lights, Cameras, TEACH. I believe that just like an action-packed movie, a successful classroom needs a good director. Each blog post will share ideas about why I think it is essential to keep kids engaged in active learning and how to make the classroom a place where kids want to be.

So I got several questions about my first post, asking me about how I first landed that first job at the start-up school in California. While I had no plans on ever permanently leaving New York, I had been encouraged by several people to spread my wings. While I wasn't applying for any jobs, my resume had been posted on some teaching websites. I also spent my summers in LA and had networked with people who were trying to persuade me to move to the west coast. I don't remember exactly how I was introduced to the start-up school, but it happened rather quickly. After several phone interviews, I was flown out to LA in early April of 2014 to visit the school in person and teach a demo lesson. Phone conversations continued until the beginning of May. I was offered the position sometime in mid-May and began the process of filling out paperwork, but I didn't sign the contract until the end of the month. California accepted my New York State teaching license, so it was just a matter of filling out paperwork and paying fees to obtain a preliminary California teaching credential.

After reflecting upon my first episode, I realized how fortunate I have been. Throughout my 17 years of teaching, I have had great role models and mentors. Positive role models and administrators who not only support you and stand up for you but also help you grow are vital to a successful teaching career. I would never have made it this far without them.

Supportive colleagues are essential, too. I've learned how crucial it is to surround yourself with role models, mentors, and people who you enjoy being around. A teaching career can be lonely. In my opinion, there's no time for mediocrity, negativity, or jealousy. Take the time to find your tribe and inspire each other. Ignore the naysayers.

Reflection Questions:

1) Who are your role models?

2) Have you had a mentor who supported your educational journey?

3) Do you have a teacher tribe? If so, how do you inspire each other?

In this post, I am going to begin talking about my first teaching non-negotiable, active learning. The term "active learning" comes from Edgar Dale's research, which states humans remember 90% of what they do. I will post a graphic of his Cone of Experience on Twitter.

If you follow me on social media, you have probably seen my room simulations. My simulations take a lesson and make a learning experience out of it, with the ultimate goal being to create an environment of active learning. For example, at the end of my geography unit, I take my class on a cruise around the world. For weeks before the simulation, I tell students that we will be going on a cruise. Students are told that knowing how to use map skills, especially latitude and longitude, will be vital to their success. I reinforce the idea that I do not want to have to call home and tell any parents that their child has been lost at sea. The day before the simulation, I assign a short review sheet that, when completed, becomes their boarding ticket.

The next morning, my students come to class to see me dressed up as a ship captain. I collect each student's ticket and allow them to board our cruise ship. To their surprise, the entire classroom has been transformed into a cruise ship. Seagulls are hanging from the ceiling, oceans sounds are playing in the background, and giant backdrops of the horizon are hanging on the walls.

Students are handed sunglasses and Hawaiian leis to wear. Throughout the simulation, students use latitude and longitude coordinates to plot the locations of where our cruise ship visits. They work collaboratively with a partner and keep track of their travels in a travel journal I provided them with. When students successfully make it to the last stop, they logged onto Newsela and read an article about Gladys West and her contribution to the creation of GPS.

During our unit on nonfiction, students go on a text-feature safari. The Reading King simulation is one of my favorites. During this lesson, my students go on a safari to find the different nonfiction text features that we've learned about during reading. Each student is supplied with a travel magazine on Africa, a safari survival pack (a bag of dried fruit, a small bottle of water, and a mechanical pencil). Students wear safari hats and use binoculars to find text features throughout the magazine. As students find the text features, they annotate their safari guide. In addition to animal sounds playing in the background, I placed giant three-dimensional safari animals placed around the classroom, and giant backdrops of the African savannah hung on the walls.

Something I didn't know a lot about but knew my kids enjoyed playing was Minecraft. We were just finishing up learning about the parts of speech in grammar and decided to make a simulation based on the game. In my version, called Grammarcraft, students built sentences using different parts of speech. Throughout the entire grammar unit, students had come accustomed to color-coding each part of speech they were using when writing sentences. I took the same color-coding system and printed out tons of colored labels. Students used the labels to build sentences. With the help of Flocabulary, students learned the Parts of Speech Rap and became well-versed in identifying the parts of speech and using them to write sentences.

I do these simulations, roughly once or twice a month, which is usually used to review the content I already taught in class. I also use simulations to make less exciting content come alive. During my simulations, students are fully engaged, and I am there (usually in costume) to facilitate learning.

Most recently, as I was teaching students about artifacts and archeology, I transformed my classroom into Indiana Jones and the Lost City. Students come to class and simulate the experience of being an archeologist. While archeologists do not raid tombs, snatch ancient idols, dig for bones or fall into booby-trapped chambers, Indiana Jones (which by the way is my absolute favorite Disneyland ride) was the perfect backdrop for this lesson.

I fill extra-large plastic containers with sand and carefully bury artifacts (a mix of miniature items and laminated pictures). Students rotate around the classroom completing various tasks. One task is students read about Archeology using an issue of Kids Discover magazine. In addition to reading, students practice answering comprehension questions and defining vocabulary words. When students join at the excavation site, they put on their hard hats (the same ones used during the Reading King Safari), gather their digging tools, and carefully begin digging for artifacts.

As students uncover an artifact, they return to their desks and write in their Archeology journals. First, they describe the artifact they found, focusing on what natural resource it may have been made from. Second, they infer what the object may have been used for. After all students find an artifact, we compile a list of all the artifacts that were found. Through guided writing, we write a summary describing what life may have been like in this lost city. For example, students infer that since a necklace made from shells was found, the city must have been located near a large body of water. A gold coin may have been used for trading, and a bow and arrow could have been used for hunting animals. Head to my Instagram profile to see photos of Indiana Jones and the Lost City and use the link in my profile to download a copy of this lesson.

Next week I will talk about other simulations my students participate in, including Rodeo Roundup, Back to the Future (Independence Hall), and Text Structure Madness! I will also share where I get my materials, where I store it all, tips on getting props, and my go-to resources.

On my second podcast episode, I hosted a student from my very first class. To listen to the interview, please visit my podcast at

I was so excited to have one of my former students on for that episode. Ryan was in my very first class. To remind you, I was only 22 years old back in 2003. As teachers, our memories of our first classes are particularly fond.

17 years later, Ryan is still one of my best students of all time. I believe that Ryan (at ten) probably was smarter than I was when I was his teacher. Ryan always demonstrated his best behavior and love for learning. I am honored that 17 years later, we still keep in touch and that he is taking the time to be my second guest on Lights, Camera, TEACH.

So that wraps up this posting of Lights, Camera, TEACH. Before I sign off, Kids Discover magazines are one of my favorite classroom resources. These magazines can be used in grades 3 and up. They come in a vast assortment of nonfiction topics, everything from hurricanes to the American Revolution. If you would like to WIN a set of these magazines, please share the link for this blog on Twitter, tag me and use the lightscamerasTEACH hashtag. One person will be picked at random and mailed a brand new collection of Kids Discover magazines for use in your classroom.

Reflection Questions:

1) What does active learning look like in your classroom?

2) How do you facilitate student engagement?

3) What's one "show-stopping" lesson you teach?

Oh, hot off the press, next week's guest is my friend, teacher SUPERSTAR, Nancy Chung, also known on Instagram as FancyNancyin5th. The two of us will be talking about student engagement and what active learning looks like in her classroom. If you don't follow her, do it now @fancynancyin5th

And, if you're looking for a book to cozy up with, I just finished reading Thomas Murray's book Personal & Authentic. I highly recommend picking it up for that little extra motivation and inspiration during this hectic time of the year.

If you have any questions that you would like answered on my podcast, please direct message me on Twitter @KevinJButler

Until next time, thanks for reading!

234 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Creating a Blockbuster Classroom

bottom of page