Spy Headquarters: Creating engaging learning environments

Are y'all ready for week number ONE of my Set the Stage to Engage series. No seriously? Are you ready? ;) 

Today is all about creating a learning environment that sets the tone and builds your students with so much excitement and anticipation, that they simply can't even help but be engaged. Really, there is no other choice. Let's not give them too many options. There is be engaged. Or...well...be engaged! 

...and here is why I do it! 

I have found this to be true 100% of the time. As teachers, we have to be unpredictable and....well...a little crazy. Once we step outside of our comfort zone and create lessons that are a little outside of the box, our students will be filled with anticipation and hopefully running into our doors every single day. 

I can't wait to share one of my absolute favorite lessons from the year that does just that. So, put on your best disguise and let's begin. 

{P.S. My full intention was to create a video that explains how this lesson went down for my people {like me} not really interested in reading a tremendous amount of text. It's not working exactly as I had planned, but as soon as I get it all figured out, I will post it for you! :) } 

The lesson began when each student arrived to my door with a warm {well...as warm as a spy can be} welcome from Agent Stone. Emma Stone! I used an easy app called Finger Reader {clever title, right?} to scan each student's finger. Once they were cleared through all forms of security, they entered the spy lab one by one. 

Tip #1: Now...you have to dress the part. I hope during this little engagement series, I am able to challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone. Don't be afraid to dress in costume. Your kids will GO CRAZY. AND you totally have to be in character. The kids love when I act like I have no clue whatsoever that there was a spy in our classroom. 

Come on people! Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is where you need to live...the uncomfortable zone! I promise, you will grow to love it. So will your kids. 

To create the lab, you need a TON of materials. Brace yourself. You will need to make sure you have: 

1) white yarn
2) black lights

Ok...so I was totally kidding about the "ton of materials" thing. Thank goodness you didn't stop reading. No seriously. That's it. Two things and BAM...a state of the art spy lab. 

Tip #2: Set up: It only took about an hour to set this lab up. I tied long strands of yarn in groups of six to my ceiling. Then I simply stretched them down and tied them to desks. Super SUPER easy.

I also had push lights and disguise glasses/mustaches laid out for the students. I found both of these things at Dollar Tree. I also had this little Matrix gem playing on my Promethean and some good ol' spy music on Pandora. I think I looked up James Bond or something like that. 

Tip #3: It is amazing how a little background music can totally transform your lesson and environment. I usually try to find theme music without words so that it doesn't distract the students while they are working. Imagine walking into a silent spy lab {meh...kinda boring}. But imagine walking into this...

{Begin around 27 seconds}

Now it's time to get down to the content. I love creating the atmosphere, but let's get serious. It's not going to teach the lesson for you. One of the most important things about transforming your space is remembering to pair it with extremely rigorous content. 

The lab got them in the door and beyond thrilled about what was going to be a pretty darn difficult assignment. Once you win them over, they are willing to put in that work! 

We had been working on analyzing nonfiction texts and this lesson was really piecing everything together. The students were each assigned a section out of The Dark Game. If you teach grades 5/6, this book is an excellent nonfiction source. However, this lesson can be used with any piece of nonfiction text.

The materials on their desk looked a little something like this. {Printables resources will be included in my spy unit below.} 

The students were given the task to read that passage {pretty lengthy} about an American spy during one of the major wars. They were then challenged to create a brand new profile for the spy because our American files had been hacked and all information had been destroyed.  This required a strong understanding of summarizing information and organizing most important details.

The spy group had to first decide what text structure was used to present the information.  As a group, they discussed their reading from the night before and came to a consensus. Once they agreed, they had to work together to crack their very first spy code. Once they cracked the code, their text structure should have been confirmed. {The code told the text structure of the section they read}. 

Then they had to decide what details needed to be included, and what details were considered "fluff" and could be excluded from the file. The students created a graphic organizer {depending on the text structure} to show the most important information. Then they combined and "shrank" their list to identify the top 5 most important pieces of information about their spy. That is the information they used to create the spy profile. 

Throughout the lesson, I issued spy points for a variety of things {work ethic, cooperation, remembering my spy name ;), not touching lasers, etc.}. At the end of the lesson, we celebrated our top spy group. 

Now...who has questions? ;)

Visit my Facebook page tomorrow {June 26th} to begin leaving your questions under this graphic. I will return this weekend with some answers. 

If you are interested in the printable resources that I used for this lesson, along with some other resources that I used to teach nonfiction, I will be putting this up in my shop next week. I would love for you to check it out. 

I hope you all enjoyed week one of my Set the Stage to Engage Series. I would love to hear what you think below. 

I will be back this weekend to answer some of your questions!

For now, I am signing off! 

Agent Emma Stone ;) 


  1. THIS. IS. AWESOME. I may be using this in a future lesson!!!

  2. This is seriously cool! Any kid would eat this up. I love your ideas!

  3. I love all your ideas. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Can I come be in your class?! This is amazing!! Can't wait to read the rest of your series :o)
    Munchkins Inc.

  5. OMG, Now I'm going back to re-read your Student Engagement e-book! THANK YOU :) Jen

  6. Wonderfully exciting! I am already trying to figure out how I can adapt to second grade!

  7. Ah-ma-zing!! I loved your Engage series that I purchased on TpT and I am super excited about this series! My kids would go nuts over this! I love how simple this would be to do!!

    A Tall Drink of Water

  8. You are amazing, Hope! :) What a blessing you are to your students...and to all of us, the educators in the trenches! Your "Set the Stage 2 Engage" Ebook is AMAZING. Seriously, a life changing resource! It challenged and encouraged me to totally reorganize my instruction last year into units of "engagement." My kids and parents went wild, and teaching has never been more fun....not to mention my kids mastered more rigorous content than ever! :) Can't wait to see what is next in this series!!!

  9. What a fantastic lesson! The rigor tied to fun is inspiring! THANK YOU!

  10. Please let me be in your class! You are my hero! For REAL! Love you!!

  11. Can I just be you when I grow up? Seriously amazing, as always!

  12. OH MY GOODNESS! This is awesome!!! What a fun lesson! And I just love how you used the white yarn and blacklight! Very realistic! How fun!!!

    I dress up pretty frequently in my classroom and I always tell other teachers that sometimes we have to leave our dignity in the parking lot for the sake of learning :)


  13. Wow! You are the Coolest.Teacher.Ever!! :)


  14. This is fantastic!! Keep these fab posts coming...feeling super inspired. This is my kind of teaching for sure! Looking forward to hearing more in Vegas!

  15. Five Star Fabulous!

  16. Is your unit in your tpt store? Can't seem to find it.

  17. Hope, this is AMAZING! I would love this unit, but I'm not finding it in your store!

  18. Hope, this is AMAZING! I would love this unit, but I'm not finding it in your store!

  19. Is your Spy Unit available? Thanks!

  20. Will your Spy Unit be available soon? I'm thinking about incorporating some of your amazing idea into my classroom! Thank you for sharing your awesomeness!