"Tuning In" Strategies for Starting a New Unit - 5 for Friday

I'm linking up With Doodle Bugs Teaching's 5 for Friday in a different way - Instead of sharing 5 random things we did this week, I'm sharing 5 ways to start a new unit with your class!

How do you usually start a new unit with your students? Do you plan certain activities to help them connect to the topic? Or do you dive right in? If you teach through inquiry, you have probably heard the term "tuning in". Even if you do not consider yourself an inquiry teacher, I'm sure you know about beginning new units by starting with students' prior knowledge and experiences. Well, that's part of what tuning in is all about. This post is all about how you can implement tuning in activities in your classroom to get your units started off on the right foot.

Purposes of Tuning In

  • to assess students' thoughts, feelings and understandings about the topic
  • to reveal students' misconceptions (so they can be explicitly addressed)
  • to help students personally connect to the topic
  • to generate questions and goals for learning

Tuning in activities are about students sharing their thoughts and feelings. The role of the teacher is to provide various ways in which to do this, recognizing different learning styles. Some activities are more verbal or visual, while still others may appeal to kinaesthetic learners.

As students participate in different activities and they have the chance to think about the topic, they begin to connect with it. As they connect, questions begin to surface. Ultimately, you want them to see the personal relevance (how does this topic affect me?) Spurring that curiosity is certainly a way to get students engaged and excited for learning.

OK, so now you are saying, that sounds fabulous, but HOW do I do it? Well, let me share with you some of the tuning strategies I have done with my class this week as we began our new unit on "health and well-being".
You know how much kids love a surprise, right? Well what better way to get their attention than with a "mystery box!??" We have these great, red touchy-feely boxes at school that we use for tactile activities (perfect for learning about the 5 senses!) I think you can buy them from somewhere like Lakeshore, or just get someone handy to build it for you!

I used this "mystery box" as a way to get students thinking about what our new unit was about. The goal is to get students to infer what the unit topic might be based on the objects that they find in the box. First I gathered 10 different items related to health and wellness.
I kept all the items hidden in a bag next to the mystery box. After putting 1 item in the box (students gathered around, eyes closed for a minute!), I would draw two names and ask students to come up, feel the object and whisper to each other what it could be. Oh, the excitement! Then they announced their prediction to the class, I revealed the item and listed it on the white board.

About half way through, I asked students to infer a connection between the first 5 items, "What do all these things have in common?" - crickets chirping - they didn't quite get it yet, so we kept discovering more items. Once we shared all 10, students were better equipped to make inferences, although it was still quite challenging for most of them. I decided to guide them a bit more by asking another question, "How do we use it? (What's its function) How do we use an apple? a toothbrush?" That's when a few more kiddos started to make connections.
They were able to come up with "things we do everyday" and ""how we keep healthy" Great! At that point I let them know that they were on the right track, and that we'd be studying health and well-being. They were hooked and ready to learn more.... the next day, of course. The whole lesson took about 30 minutes, and that's definitely all these first graders were about to handle! Can you think of ways to use a mystery box to get your students thinking?

The very next day, I had students complete a pre-assessment, so I could really see what each child knew before we got too deep into sharing our background knowledge for health and well-being. I simply asked them to finish two statements: "Being healthy means..." and "Well-being means..." Almost all of the students had some kind of understanding of health, but most didn't know what well-being was (not surprising). Their responses were all different- mostly they mentioned eating vegetable, exercising, brushing teeth, that kind of thing. The goal for the unit is that they learn that well-being includes health, the kind they are most familiar with- bodily health, but I also want them to learn about emotional and social health.

After the pre-assessment, they began working on a magazine photo collage. I gave each student a piece of construction paper with a simple label to glue in the middle, "Health looks like..." Before we started, I chatted with them about which items they should cut and why. They all agreed with me that random pictures that simply looked cool (like sports cars, or whatever!) would not be cut-worthy! I asked them to look for pictures that represented what it means to be healthy.

They set to work cutting and pasting and loved every minute! We spent two 30 minute blocks doing this activity; I chose to do it over 2 days. Once they finished, students shared their collages and we discussed all the things that contribute to one's health and how we need balance in our lives to truly be healthy.

The next day we played "Pass the Ball". It's a very simple activity- no prep, no photocopies! All you need is an idea and a ball! You gather the students into a circle (standing or sitting), and ask them to share their thoughts, feeling or opinions about the topic when someone either tosses or rolls the ball to them. Since part of our unit focuses on how our choices affect our well-being, I asked students to share what kinds of choices they are allowed to make. To help them express themselves more easily, I gave them the following sentence starter: "A choice that I make for myself is..." (It didn't have to be health-related, just any choice.)

Once everyone had shared, we played another round, this time sharing, "A choice that someone else makes for me is..." This was to get them thinking about how most of the time their parents make a lot of important decisions for them. I want them to realize that while they can't choose some things in their lives, there are many things that they can choose, especially when it comes to emotional and social health- their sense of self-esteem, how they manage friendships, that kind of thing.
Finally, another way to get students to tune in is to reflect. We didn't quite get to this last strategy yet, but students will make a "Think, Wink, Decide" book. Think stands for "what I THINK I Now Know", Wink stands for "What I NEED to Know", and Decide means students decide on two questions that they'd like to research.

I made a simple two page booklet to photocopy as a double-sided page that students could fold in half.

I plan to use this booklet later on with my kids so they can reflect on the new things they've learned from the unit.

I hope you picked up some ideas for your class! If you'd like more, click HERE to read my post about another tuning in strategy, "Picture Priorities" or HERE to read my post about using the visible thinking strategy, "See, Think, Wonder" as a way to tune in.

What unit are you currently teaching in science or social studies? I'd love to hear how you get your kids engaged and tuned in!

Thanks for stopping by!
Enjoy your weekend!!!
Signature photo ScreenShot2013-04-26at54143PM.png


  1. This is a great post and great ideas! Thanks for sharing!
    :) Dana
    Common to the Core

    1. Hi, I like your ideas :) do you have some about "sorting out"? I couldn´t find any...Thanks in advance!

  2. Your ideas are amazing, thanks a million for the inspiring post

  3. Hi, your tuning in activities are great and well presented with clear instructions and photos. Thank you for sharing


  4. Great post! Love your mystery box- i have a small one for the sense unit (How the World Works) but I think I have to upgrade it to one like yours!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. hi could u help me out as i am starting my new inquiry on homes for kindergarten


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