SOS: Throw Back Thursday… Whittle it Down

School has finally started back, and we have the opportunity to use everything that Discovery Education has to offer!  Of course this means implementing our favorite SOS! That being Spotlight on Strategies of course. Together we are going to be going back in time to the originals, the classics, the first strategies spotlighted by the DEN community. This is #SOSTBT

My name is Seth, and I have been a part of the DEN since my second year of teaching in 2013. I teach fifth grade in a diverse community in North Carolina and use Discovery Education resources weekly in my classroom. As I have become more experienced and more comfortable taking leadership roles in my school community, I have learned that Discovery Education is so much more than just a streaming website. There are lesson plans, activities, and assessments galore!

When I first began to explore the Spotlight on Strategies, I didn’t understand the magnitude of their effectiveness. Being a new teacher myself, that amount of resources in one place can be overwhelming. I wanted to share some of the strategies that may be buried as more strategies are added and shared. The first strategy  I dug up and we’ll be throwing back to is…

Whittle it Down

Whittle it Down is a strategy that is used to help students effectively summarize both independently and collaboratively. Think of all the opportunities! Summarizing is an essential skill that students in all grade levels study as part of their curriculum. You can implement this strategy by using a video from Discovery Education streaming, but this past week my class was learning to summarize fiction and I turned to one of the most beloved authors of all time, Dr. Seuss. Doing a quick search on youtube (or resulted in me finding a clip of the Lorax imploring the Onceler to stop cutting down trees before it was too late, but alas, we know that greedy Onceler doesn’t listen.


It’s almost as if they are in a trance…

I find that teaching children to summarize can be quite difficult to explain. We want enough details to show understanding of the media, but not too many details or it will become a list, and a list does not a summary make! The kids find it frustrating because as teachers, and knowing what the world demands, we preach the inclusion of evidence and details in our work but suddenly we are saying, “Whoa! There are too many details here! This isn’t a summary!” Please trust me when I say, I understand what you’re feeling.

Finding the Whittle it Down strategy was a dream come true. It teaches summarizing by whittling away words until you are left with only the most important and impactful. Sound too good to be true?

First you watch your video, IMG_1490or read your book, or listen to your sound clip, whatever you want your students to summarize. This is a perfect opportunity to explore the Discovery streaming libraries or dive into other media resources. Afterwards, ask them to write down the five most important words they can think IMG_1489of from the clip. They could be in the clip or words the clip makes them think of. I encouraged them to think deeper here. Try not to focus on things in the setting, such as smoke or axes, because those probably weren’t what Dr. Seuss wanted you to take away from this story. On the other hand, I also had to hold myself back from giving too much advice. We want the students to create their own ideas and take ownership of the words they have chosen. Keeping my mouth shut is always the hardest part for me… This student chose to write down 1) dull 2) sadness 3) powers 4) uncomfortable and 5) stop. I guess he felt uncomfortable as he saw the very last truffula tree cut down! Deeper level thinking is going to happen and that is a magical thing!

Now here is where the fun begins. After about thirty seconds of writing time, have kids clusterIMG_1495 into groups of about four to five. Here they will share their words and why they thought their words were the most important. The group then pics three words out of everyone’s choices that the group thinks are the most essential to the story.  I have videos of my students discussing their work and choosing which words they were going to share with the class linked below.

Orange group discussion     Pink group discussion     Blue group discussion     Green group discussion

A quick group share will reveal about 10-15 words, many of which will probably be repeated among multiple groups. These are the money words. As a class we then whittle the words down again to the most important 3-4 words which we then create a summary with. I enjoyed hearing their reasoning for why these particular words were the most important. They spoke quite eloquently in my opinion!

Whole class justification     Chase’s thinking

Group sharing is essential here in my opinion. Students should feel comfortable and safe enough to share their ideas without feeling ridicule from their peers. Constructive criticism from the other students many times makes more of an impact! The groups shared out their final summaries and were pleasantly surprised to see that they were similar. We took this as a sign that we had all been successful, but we still had room for improvement!

IMG_1506 IMG_1505



After this first experience, my class has used the Whittle it Down strategy three more times. Once with our read aloud and twice with a shared text from Discovery Education’s Common Core in the Classroom resources. With practice, the kids not only find that they can summarize more efficiently, but they are reading closer to find the important information and weeding out the details which may add interest to a story but aren’t a part of the message or main idea.

I find myself feeling quite lucky to have found the DEN community and all of the incredible resources Discovery Education has to offer. The Whittle it Down strategy deserves to retake the spotlight because of its incredible potential to cause deeper, higher order thinking and its ability to be twisted for other purposes.

Other possible Twists:

  • In science, have students use the strategy to create five words about a topic and use them to design investigations
  • Use the five most important words students can think of when solving a math problem. Include them in a written explanation or video summary.
  • Have students write down the 5 most important aspects of a social studies or science unit. For example: Battle of Gettysburg, Sherman’s March, Nat Turner Rebellion, Underground Railroad, and Lincoln’s Speeches for the Civil War. These can be used to design projects or just to map an important events timeline!




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