the educational technology journal

Vol 19|No 1|September 2009
Please feel free to e-mail this article to a friend, a principal, a parent, a colleague, a teacher librarian, a college professor, a poet, a magician, a vendor, an artist, a juggler, a student, a news reporter or to anyone else you think might enjoy it.

They're Not Just For Dining

By Cindy Burkes, ©2009, all rights reserved.
About author: Cindy Burkes is a third grade teacher in Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada. During her 25 years in this district, she has worked as an Educational Computing Strategist as well as a Project Facilitator in the Teacher Induction and Mentoring Department. Cindy also works as an adjunct instructor for Lesley University's Technology In Education Masters Program. She shares her experiences with teachers at local New Teacher Conferences and Technology Conferences. For questions or further inquiries, you may contact Cindy at burkes1026@yahoo.com

Are you ready for a new tool to help you set the table for higher achievement with your students?

A Placemat set on each student's desk top is just what you need. No, not the kind your mother or grandmother used to ensure the table would not be affected by the meal, but a guide for study, a note taking tool, a place to practice skills, or a place to show knowledge of content.

Darlene Axtell uses placemats in her Classroom Management seminars. The placemats she provides have the agenda, key ideas, goals, and other pertinent information on them. (Axtell, 2007) This article evolved out of the model she shared.

A Placemat can be whatever the designer makes it. The sample below is a Placemat created for a third grade class to coincide with the weekly story the students are reading. The scaffolding in the Placemat below is provided for second language learners to help them better understand the vocabulary from the story. Notice the picture cues for the vocabulary. There is also a work area for the week's focus skill, decoding long words.

The second-language students I teach have a difficult time with vocabulary. So I designed a Placemat that incorporated visual cues with the vocabulary words. Their vocabulary scores soared.

In the beginning, I provided the picture cue, the definition and a sample sentence. The students just filled in the author, illustrator and focus skill sections. As the weeks went on, less scaffolding was provided.

Students are now provided one of three Placemats depending upon their learning needs. Differentiating instruction is the standard for many teachers. To provide differentiated Placemats simply save the Placemat at various levels of creation. For this particular Placemat, you would insert the vocabulary words and the focus skill objective and save that placemat for your students who are on grade level. Then add pictures and more delineation in your focus skill area for struggling students. Finally, you may decide to provide either the definition, the sample sentence, or both for your students who are well below grade level.

Placemat for on level students

Placemat for below level students

Placemat for well below grade level students

An understanding of the basics of scaffolding, adapted from Jaime McKenzie's book, Beyond Technology: Questioning, Research and the Information Literate School Community, is essential for understanding the function of Placemats. A Placemat that provides scaffolding should:
  • Provide clear directions: Students should be given clear directions on when to use each section and what the desired intention is for each section. A skillfully designed Placemat will help ensure that clarity.
  • Keep students on task: The Placemat allows students to focus on the lecture, demonstration, etc., while taking notes, clarifying thinking, drawing diagrams, or whatever is needed to enhance student learning for the lesson.
  • Offer opportunities to clarify expectations: Students better understand the expectations to draw a diagram, or take notes if there is a place provided for those expectations.
  • Point students to important information: By providing areas for each important concept, you will teach the students to understand the importance of this information. It is easier for the students to get “The Big Idea” if there is a place where they need to record it.
  • Reduce uncertainty, surprise and disappointment: If students understand the requirements of the Placemats, they will be more successful in completing it.
  • Deliver efficiency: One of the areas in which Placemats help students become more efficient is note taking. By delineating the areas of information, the teacher helps the student become more efficient. Getting the important notes in an organized fashion is no longer a struggle for the student.

There are several questions you need to ask yourself before planning the design of your Placemat.

  • Curriculum - Which curriculum is this going to cover? How are you covering this curriculum? Is this lecture, demonstration, video or some type of hybrid?
  • Scaffolding - How much scaffolding should be provided? Is your class just learning note taking skills? Do you have second language learners in your class? At what ability level are your students?
  • Time frame - Will this Placemat cover one period, one week, one unit, or one concept?
  • Sections - What kind of sections will you need? Do you want your students to create diagrams, take notes, or fill in the blanks? Do you want to provide the daily/weekly objectives? Do you want to provide extension activities?
  • Graphics- How can you use graphics to enhance your Placemat? Do your graphics serve a purpose? Are there too many graphics?
Notice the samples provided. There is no curricular area that cannot use a placemat! Here are examples of placemats for different subject areas.

In her study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Andrade, 2009, contends that people who doodled during lectures remembered 29% more of the lecture than those who just listened. So, if your Placemat is a note taking tool, it might be advantageous to provide a place on the Placemat for doodling or an uncolored graphic for students to color while listening. Your students may actually remember more of your lecture than before!

Design is a personal matter. A few things to take into consideration when planning the design of your Placemat are space, placement of sections, balance, white space and black space. These are common sense ideas: Leave enough space for the intended use; place workspaces in the same place every week if this is an ongoing tool; try to achieve balance, yet not grid-like sections; and leave some white space and never have black space.

When working with students with learning disabilities you may want to provide an overlay mat that will black out the areas of the Placemat that are not currently the focus. To create an overlay, use a piece of black construction paper and cut holes to match the areas on the Placemat. By maintaining the integrity of the Placemat, the pre-cut overlay mats are usable week after week, Placemat after Placemat.

So, what now? Use your favorite word-processing software and create your own Placemat. There you have it, everything you will need in order to create a Placemat of your very own and set the table for higher student achievement.


Andrade, J. (2009). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology.
Axtell, D. (2007, September 21). Classroom Management Seminar. Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. http://www.danielsongroup.org/darleneaxtell.htm
McKenzie, J. (1999). Beyond Technology: Questioning, Research and the Information Literate School Community. http://fnopress.com/beyondtech.html

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