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Teachable Life Lessons: Hula hoops® and fishy handshakes

By December 15, 2016August 23rd, 201720 Comments

student handshakeHow do you know when you’ve made a positive impact on a former student? As a teacher, there isn’t anything much more rewarding than receiving an “out-of-the-blue” message via phone call, e-mail, social media, or a personal visit from a former student. While I’ve yet to be contacted about how wonderfully I taught a specific subject or lesson, I have had former students tell me about the life lessons they learned in my classroom that made a difference or had an impact on their successes.

Educators do so much more than teach content and prepare students for assessments. Yes, we teach A LOT of content in the short time we have students, but when we take a step back and objectively look at who, what, and where we want our students to be as adults, it becomes easier to slip quick life lessons into the classroom throughout the year. Life lessons can have an impact on students as they mature into adulthood or as they apply for that first job. Research tells us that lessons that tap into our emotions have a much greater chance of being retained, so creating funny or engaging scenarios—such as a fishy handshake or sharing stories from real-life—can help students recall specific social awareness skills they learned in the classroom.

Former students who have contacted me have affirmed their positive memories of classroom life lessons, saying:

“I knew how to look my future employer in the eyes as I shook her hand. I stood up straight and tall and presented myself confidently, even though I was scared to death.”

“I am very skilled at paraphrasing and listening to colleagues as they share.”

“I realize that every small task in college is just one step closer to finishing my degree; the finished project.”

Here are a few powerful, quick exercises I used in my classroom over the years to help students become responsible, respectful, caring adults:

Hula Hoop

Life Lesson: Respecting personal space

Using a small hula hoop, I demonstrated the boundaries forming the invisible personal space around each person, explaining that most people aren’t comfortable when others get inside their hula hoop, unless they invite them. Throughout the year, we practiced this exercise in pairs (don’t forget to laugh!), while reminding each other about respecting personal space.

Fishy Handshake

Life Lesson: Greeting others with respect

In this exercise, I paired students up and sat them together, one as Person A and the other as Person B. I asked them to stand and shake hands, then sit down and watch me. A volunteer would come up and we’d address one another with a hand shake. I’d offer my right hand with the limpness of a cold, floppy fish. I would then ask the volunteer to tell the class what it felt like to shake my hand. In the risk-taking, honest, put-it-out-there, classroom environment we’d already firmly established, students never had any trouble describing my handshake as limp and very unimpressive.

Then, I’d greet the student with an overly zealous, extra firm handshake and get their take on that. Usually, the student would take a step back and freely express that the over-confident version was equally unimpressive. Finally, I would demonstrate a firm, look-you-in-the-eye, welcoming handshake and have the student describe the difference, explaining why the third one felt the most comfortable. As a class, the Person B students then practiced walking up to the seated Person A students. As the Person A students were approached, they stood and practiced the “just-right” hand shake. Throughout the school year we would occasionally take a brain-break from our studies to practice our handshakes.

Body Language

Life Lesson: Being an engaged listener

I’d begin this exercise while seated in a chair at the front of the classroom. I would invite a student to approach me and share a story about their night; for example, their experience in a sporting event. As the student spoke, I would look everywhere but in their eyes, crossing my arms and legs, and acting completely disengaged from their story. As the class snickered and I continued my act, the storytelling student kept trying to get my attention, regaling me with tales of his superior athletic moves.

In our debriefing, I asked the storyteller to talk about how my behavior made him feel. The class chimed in, providing their personal observations. As a group, we would then brainstorm what engaged listening looks like and feels like, and, in pairs, we learned to paraphrase each other, appear approachable, and act engaged even when we didn’t feel it.


Life Lesson: Persevering through effort

This simple exercise offered several opportunities throughout the lesson for students to learn about grit, effort, and stamina, some of the most important skills they’ll need in life. I’d show online video snippets of people demonstrating effort in their daily lives. Students would then share effort stories about their own families, movies they’d seen, and times when they, themselves, persevered through a trying period. It was enlightening when students from other countries shared stories of their families’ struggles and perseverance in America. This not only illustrated effort, but celebrated the many cultures present in our classroom, creating a circle of care.

Educators: I’m sure you can add to my list! Please comment and share some of your most powerful classroom activities for teaching life lessons.

6a010536aec25c970b01bb083ab04d970dCheryl Abla is a managing consultant at McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good TeachingClassroom Instruction that Works with English Language LearnersUsing Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Jim Bientev says:

    I love how effective yet simple these classroom exercises are to do. It seems to me that Cheryl’s examples are all about how you come at your students in a thoughtful and meaningful way and to create a dialogue with your students. Just because you are teaching doesn’t mean it can’t be engaging and fun!

  • Cheryl says:

    Hello Jim,

    Thank you for your comment. I agree completely. Learning should bring joy to both the teacher and their students.

    Take Care,

  • Tim Spensor says:

    As a principal, I must totally agree with Ms. Abla on her ideas for teaching life lessons. Life lesson need to be taught early and often so students develop the confidence to face the real world. A firm, confident hand shake speaks volumes. It is particularly important when going on an interview. As Cheryl stated, not a hand-crushing firm hand shake, but something that shows confidence and let’s the other person know you’re alive and healthy. A handshake might not get you the job but there are several instances when a bad handshake added to a ‘thumbs down’ vote from an interview team. Practicing thought the year in a safe atmosphere ensures students get better and it becomes natural, above all, the hand shake becomes genuine. After meeting and interviewing hundreds candidates, I know the value of a good handshake.
    Great job Cheryl and keep those ideas coming.

  • Nancy Taylor says:

    Cheryl, these are wonderful ideas that students will remember! I have used the handshake lesson with my Girl Scout troop and it’s something that I hope they remember as they are now interviewing for and starting to get jobs (15-16 year olds). Another lesson that I remember well was a test that one of my college professor’s administered. The first item said to read the instructions and all of the questions before starting. The very last “question” on the test required you to put your name on the top and to sit there and look busy — meanwhile, my classmates who didn’t read the instructions and the test were busy answering all of the questions in between. Life lesson – Remember to read the instructions!

  • Victoria Pickerill says:

    I’m an Assistant Principal at an elementary school in Illinois. These are great ideas and examples Cheryl and thank you for sharing them. I would like to share one back. We have a Second Grade Teacher at our school that has her students write unkind words on a piece of construction paper that has been cut into the shape of a heart. Words like “ugly” or “smelly”. Then she has them wad up the piece of heart-shaped construction paper then try to straighten it back out as if it had never been wadded up. Of course, you can’t get all the creases out once you wad it up. This shows how mean and unkind words cause hurt feelings and how you can’t undo it once you’ve said it…….the heart is creased and isn’t the same as it was before. This connects with the students and she remains a favorite teacher with her students and their parents year after year.

  • Andy says:

    These real world skills are vital to learn at a young age and practice often. Wonder what a visual of these skills could look like? Educators could use it to guide lessons and serve as an expectations reminder. Having kids create YouTube videos to model examples and non-examples is another way to emphasize these talents. Being a Leader In Me school the ability to connect content and soft skills is important. Thanks for the sharing your experience.

  • Cheryl Abla says:

    Hello Tim,

    Thank you for your message. I’m glad you believe in lifelong teachable skills. I truly believe the environment any educator creates for their students makes all the difference. Having that safe, “failing forward” atmosphere sets the class up for a year of growing and learning with a safety net to try new things.

    Happy Holidays!

  • Cheryl Abla says:

    Hello Nancy,
    Thanks so much for sharing this great life lesson of “reading the directions before jumping in”. What a great lesson for all of us to remember.
    I am certain the girl scouts you worked with are confidently using their firm handshake skills as they apply for those first jobs. Think how many others they have shared your handshake lesson with. It’s such a great ripple effect!
    Happy Holidays!

  • Cheryl Abla says:

    Hello Victoria,

    Thank you for your kind comment. I believe a positive classroom environment is so critical in today’s world. Social and emotional learning is another piece of the puzzle.

    I think it’s great that your second grade teachers pulls in such an important lesson to share with her students. I am certain the students will always remember the impact it had on them.

    Happy Holidays,

  • Cheryl Abla says:

    Hello Andy,
    Thank you for taking time to comment on my blog.
    What a great idea to have students create videos to teach others. I am all for a student centered classroom over a teacher centered one. This would help all students embrace the skill and relevance of teaching these great soft skills. I bet students would come up with some pretty impactful lessons to get their point across.
    Thank you for the great idea.
    Happy Holidays!

  • Adam Thorstensen says:

    You have shared some really great examples. Sometimes as educators I think we can get wrapped up around other aspects like standardized testing and lose sight on what is more important. Having great tools in your toolbox to guide young minds will definitely aid in being an effective teacher. Having the flexibility to facilitate life lessons is also a major key in youth development. It is truly rewarding to know that people like you always are there to help push effective teaching and I always look forward to everything you provide.
    Thank you!

  • Susan Koch says:

    Many students respond better to Teachers than their own parents with life skills like the ones you teach. Many parents don’t teach it because they are either too busy or do not know how to teach it.
    Congratulations on your success with making a difference with students.
    As a principal, I always taught students to shake with their right hand firmly and look the person into their eyes especially during awards assemblies …all while I would congratulate them on a job well done!
    One of our students moved out of state. As the mother watched the awards assembly, she wrote, the students were not shaking the principals hand. When her son approached the principal, he put his hand out to shake hands, paused for a moment with his eyes locked onto the principal’s eyes, and then paused to have his picture taken.
    When he returned to his seat next to his mother, she commented on shaking hands with the principal. He told her that Mrs. Koch showed him the right way to do it and he would not let her down. I’m a proud principal!
    It’s not often that we receive feedback of our successes!
    Keep up the great work Cheryl!

  • Cheryl says:

    Hi Adam,

    Thank you for your kind comments. I agree it does take the strength of flexibility in order to slide in those lessons as you are teaching the content. I do hope I am empowering others along this journey to stop and enjoy what they are doing and truly look at the impact they have on their students. We want successful confident adults leaving our schools each year.

    Happy Holidays!

  • Cheryl says:

    Hello Susan,

    Thank you for your thoughtful message. That is wonderful that you made such a great impact on the young man. Like you said we don’t always get to hear about the positive impacts we make, but when we do, it certainly makes all feel right in our world.

    Thank you for all you do for the teachers and students in your school. Have a wonderful winter break!


  • Laura says:

    These are great examples of needed life lessons that will motivate and engage students. Thanks for sharing.

  • D. Welsh says:

    Great post. I Homeschool my son and will definitely use the hula hoop idea to advance his understanding (with a great visualization) the concept & boundaries of personal space. Very useful, thanks!

  • Cheryl Abla says:

    Hello Laura,

    Thank you for taking time to comment. I do hope they help anyone working with children.


  • Cheryl Abla says:

    Hello D. Welsh,

    It’s great to hear from a parent who home schools. I do hope you and your son enjoy using the Hula Hoop metaphor.


  • C. Reinero says:

    How interesting! I’m going to try some of your ideas in my classes

  • Cheryl says:

    Hello C. Reinero,

    Please try a couple and let me know how they go. I am certain they will remember them when you are no longer their teacher. Lifelong learner!

    Take Care,

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