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Introducing the Student-Led Classroom

Reading Chapter 3 of Learn Like a Pirate (you can see my blog post HERE) got me so excited about next year.  Changes are in the air ... I'm switching grades (I'll have a 4/5 split with mostly fives), switching rooms (moving to the room next door and am so excited to get to decorate with a new theme and color scheme), and switching teaching styles (HELLO student-led classroom)!  SO excited.

Not 5 minutes after I finished writing my blog post for chapter 3 of Learn Like a Pirate, a fabulous idea for introducing our student-led classroom to my students popped into my head and I started writing a new blog post (and as an added bonus, I got to put off doing the dishes for a little while longer).

The Activity:

One of my favorite team-building activities to do on the first day is a cup-stacking challenge - you can read more about it HERE and HERE.  Collaborating like this is a great way to get your students working together to solve problems and helps set up great whole group discussions about how to work together to meet goals and learn from your mistakes.  Right away, I knew how I could use this group activity to introduce the ideas behind the student-led classroom.  You need 6 stacking cups (I use solo cups), one elastic, and enough string for one piece per person in the group (I usually do groups of 4).  Students need to move the cups from one formation to another using only the elastic and string - at no time can their hands (or any body parts, for that matter) touch the cups.  Teachers should give no hints or instruction about how to move the cups - groups need to figure out what strategies work for them as part of their team-building.

How I Will Change the Activity:

The first thing is to change the way the cups were stacked at the beginning.  Instead of having 2 rows of 3, the cups will first be stacked in a pyramid.  I wrote a "T" on the top cup.

They will have to break down the pyramid, starting from the top, before they can rebuild the stack (which will be the six cups fitting together in one stack with the T cup on the bottom).

If the stack falls while they are making it, they will have to work together to get it standing again.  All of this will happen without any teacher instruction or input outside of showing them what the final stack should look like and instructing them at the beginning that at no time can their hands touch the cups - they have to figure out how to move the cups using only string and elastics.

Explaining the Student-Led Classroom:

OK - here's where I turn it into our introduction to the student-led classroom.  After all groups have finished, we'll come together in a class meeting.  I'll stack the cups back into the pyramid shape from the beginning and explain that the formation represents the "old way" of how my classroom used to run.  The cup on top is the teacher (me) with the cups underneath representing the students (them).

The activity (like all activities in the "old" classroom) had to start with the teacher first (just like they had to move that cup first).  Through the activity, the students worked together, solved problems, and came up with strategies to change the formation (while I say this I will move the cups into the ending formation - the stack of 6 cups with the top cup now on the bottom).  I will explain that what used to be the top cup (the teacher) is now on the bottom - supporting all the other cups (the students).  All the cups fit perfectly together in the new formation (our "new" classroom).  The bottom cup (the teacher) is the strong foundation and the support for the students - who are now on top - forming a student-led classroom.

We can also talk (notice I didn't say "I'll tell them" - I'm working on these changes already) about challenges - sometimes the stack fell, just like we will sometimes encounter problems with this new way of doing things, but by working together, we can build it back up again.  We can end with a student-created anchor chart about our learning and insights from this activity.

I am SO excited about this.  It ties in the ideals of growth mindset AND introduces the methods of the student-led classroom.  I think it's going to be a GREAT year!


  1. I am loving this book Learn Like a Pirate. Your idea on introducing the idea of a student led classroom is topnotch. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Totally using this awesome idea to kick off and explain our student led classroom!

  3. AMAZING idea and insight...relating the activity perfectly to the student-led classroom! I would love to be a student in this class! Can't wait to hear all about your "new" year! I will incorporate this idea with my pre-ap class! Thank you for sharing!!!

  4. I too am transforming my classroom into a student led one next year. I usually do the cup activity as a cooperative learning discussion, but I love the idea of showing how the classroom will be changed. Thanks for sharing your wonderful idea!

  5. I kept thinking of this activity too! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your explanation of the "old" way and "new" way is perfect!

  6. What a wonderful way to introduce the student-led classroom! It sounds exciting, and I'm so looking forward to reading all about your class in the upcoming year!

  7. Awesome! I will be trying out a student-led classroom this year as well with a new 3rd/4th grade room. Exciting!!

  8. I did this activity on the first day of school last year and the kids loved it! It was way harder than they thought it would be. I love your connection to introducing the student led classroom. Fantastic!

  9. I, too, will have a 4/5 combo next year. My district has been focusing on Teacher as the facilitator and students doing and learning... this is a perfect beginning!!


  10. I think this is an awesome idea! I can't wait to try it! Just one long did it take your students to complete the task and did you pre-tie the strings to the rubber bands?

  11. I didn't attach the strings - they had to figure that one out by themselves. ;) I've done this twice, and it took between 15 - 30 minutes. Once the first group figured out how to move the cups, the other groups followed suit, so the wait time wasn't that long.

  12. I love team building activities and this one is bound to be a new favorite!

    The Math Maniac

  13. Love it! We did this at an AVID training but no talking was allowed. It's a great activity!!!!

  14. Thinking of doing this for school startup this year. Question...did you instruct students to unstack the initial pyramid so they stacked one on top of another (T cup on bottom) and then restack into a pyramid? Or did they just need to unstack the initial pyramid and then stop?

  15. I am a Project Manager (Senior) for my High School Robotics team. My school is different that we have a student led model in all of our classes, our learning program is PBL (Project-Based Learning), and every student is given a macbook pro to do their work online. I have been looking for an Ice breaker for our team to use and believe this is it. Thank You!! :)

  16. Looking to try this as well. Did you provide groups with 1 piece of string, or string cut into 4 pieces?


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