The writing on the wall: How a fourth grade teacher is building a wall of thinking strategies to help students take ownership of their learning


Karl Horeis

4th grade

All subjects

Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment

To build students' metacognitive abilities to allow them to:

  • Reflect on their progress and set goals.

  • Select thinking strategies to help them attain their goals.

  • Take ownership of their learning.

Metacognition, Learner Paths



In Karl Horeis’s fourth grade class at the Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment, students are learning specific thinking strategies to help them learn. Karl created a wall of metacognitive thinking strategies to provide students with a reference to use throughout class. It’s become an interactive focal point in the room; students are able to reference specific strategies as well as add their own examples to the board. 

In creating this resource for students, Karl hopes to build their ability to understand and monitor their thinking strategies. He also hopes to provide them with a toolkit of methods to help them engage with content.

How it works


Karl started by creating the wall for his students. On the board, he provided a large list of all of the strategies and then created a section for each individual one. Through mini-lessons, he taught one strategy at a time to make sure students didn’t feel overwhelmed and were comfortable with each strategy before learning a new one. He’s added hand drawn visuals to support understanding and has made the wall interactive. Students add cards detailing the ways in which they’ve used each strategy. This allows students to take ownership of the wall and apply the content to deepen their understanding. This also provides other students with concrete examples of how they can use each strategy.

Students also are setting their own goals in math and reading. Karl has created portfolios that contain the students’ work, their Istation data, and their goal setting sheets. Once a month, the students look at their Istation data and use the goal setting sheet to determine what level they want to achieve on their next test. Then they choose the thinking strategies that they will use to support this process. This document lives in students' portfolios so they can see if they met their goal the next month.

Sutdents are also taking the lead in their parent-teacher conferences. Karl noted that students are often left out of this process, so he’s helping them lead during their conferences. Students talk about their goals, the progress they’ve made, and the metacognitive strategies they’ve used. This process is scaffolded by a sheet that students fill out to capture their thoughts. Karl hopes that this will help students take ownership of their learning and facilitate more discussions between parents and students about what’s happening in class.

The thinking strategies that students use live on the metacognitive thinking strategies wall so that students can reference them throughout class.

Each strategy includes a definition and specific ways that students have used the strategy. The one above also includes a visual reference to support students' understanding. 

Students add their own examples to the wall to demonstrate how a specific strategy can be used.

Karl checks in with students during independent reading to talk about what strategies they’re using and how they’re using them.

Students use the sheet above to help them set goals for how they’d like to progress in different subjects. They also identify what metacognitive thinking strategies they will use to help them reach their goals.

Students also get the opportunity to share their progress and talk about their metacognitive thinking strategies at parent-teacher conferences. The sheet above scaffolds that process.


  • Create the thinking strategies wall to guide students’ thinking processes.

  • Teach each strategy individually through a mini-lesson.

  • Reference the wall during lessons to build understanding.

  • Check-in with students during reading to discuss how they’re using the strategies.

  • Prompt students to add examples to the wall.

  • Provide goal setting sheets and guide students in setting goals.

  • Compile each student’s work and data into a portfolio.

  • Provide reflection sheets to help student prepare for parent-teacher conferences.

  • Give students a voice during conferences.

  • Reference the wall to identify strategies to use during their learning.

  • Implement these strategies while working.

  • Self-monitor to label their thinking.

  • Add examples to the wall to help other students.

  • Set goals for their learning by using a goal tracking sheet.

  • Identify thinking strategies that will help them achieve their goals.

  • Prepare for parent teacher conferences by using a reflection document.

  • Talk about their strengths, weaknesses, and goals during conferences.

"My goal is to help and encourage my students to be more reflective and to take ownership of their own learning. I want them to take the lead and set goals and identify areas where they want to improve. I want them to be able to name and take the steps to achieve those goals."

-Karl Horeis

Video Interviews

Introduction to the Classroom

Karl talks about what he's doing this year around metacognition, explaining how he started working with this concept and how he's built a thinking strategies wall in his classroom. He describes how he is doing student-led parent teacher conferences. He wants his students to be more reflective of their learning and take ownership of their learning. 

Classroom in Action: Metacognition Wall

Karl describes how he created the wall and teaches each strategy to his students. He connects the content to the real world so that students can apply their learning. A student then explains the wall and defines several thinking strategies.

Classroom in Action: Portfolios and Student-led Conferences

Karl walks us through a student portfolio, describing how students prepare for and lead parent-teacher conferences. Students will talk about their goals, their progress, and the strategies they will use to meet their goals. He also describes the one-on-one reading conferences that occur during independent reading and an example of this is included.

Student Impact

Some students have learned the metacognitive strategies quickly, while others have found them more challenging. Karl enjoys getting to see his students talk about these concepts and has seen learner agency increase throughout the year.

Lessons and Advice

In doing this, Karl has learned some valuable lessons. He's discovered that the metacognitive thinking strategies need to be taught one at a time and that some strategies require more time than others. He suggests creating visuals for students and involving them as much as possible in explaining and exploring these concepts.

Student Response

Several students share how they use the metacognitive thinking strategies and how learning these strategies has helped them.

If you want to try this…


  • Let students explain concepts. Give them opportunities to think of their own examples and definitions so that they can teach themselves and each other.

  • Use visuals. Provide visual guides and references to help deepen students’ understanding of concepts. 

  • Monitor for understanding. If students are struggling with a particular thinking strategy, try to find alternative ways to teach or apply the strategy. 

  • Take it one piece at a time. Introduce the strategies slowly and one at a time.
  • Let students take charge. Step back so that students can lead their own learning. 

  • Allow for reflection. Provide students with opportunities to reflect on their thinking and learning.

More about Karl

Karl Horeis earned a degree in Journalism from Western Washington University and worked as a newspaper reporter in Nevada for 5 years before joining the U.S. Antarctic Program. He was proud to support science working as a heavy equipment operator before joining his wife, a DPS PE teacher, in Denver. He completed an alternative licensure program through Stanley British Primary School and worked at a small private school for a few years before becoming a fourth grade teacher at Montclair in DPS in 2011. Over the last two years he has been working on his National Board Certification.


Special Thanks to...

Montclair teacher Karl Horeis and principal Ryan Kockler, Imaginarium staff Sophie Gullett and Lynn Hawthorne, and the students taking ownership of their learning.

A huge thank you to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose Next Generation Systems Intiative (NGSI) grant has been instrumental in helping Denver Public Schools design, study and scale personalized learning.