Sep 11, 2015 by

penny jar

Jeffrey PflaumLooking for a fun way to develop thinking skills and to discover the world of thoughts? Try John Heywood’s saying, “A penny for your thoughts.” That’s what I did with my students when I found my piggy bank overflowing with tons of pennies.

The lesson was simple: I explained the origins of the saying and how it was used. For example, the idiom asks the question: “What are you thinking about right now?” “What’s on your mind?” “What are your thoughts?” It is said to a person who is distracted, deep in thought, pensive, or anxious, and you want them to express what they’re thinking. It might sound “cheap” that you offer so little for their thought(s), but a penny was worth a lot when the saying originated. Your thought(s) were deemed valuable when a person threw out the quote to you to get at what was on your mind.

Next, I told the students: “I’m going to say, ’A penny for your thoughts,’ and you tell me what you’re thinking, what’s in your head, what thoughts are moving around inside. The thoughts can be real or imagined. Write them and let me know what’s happening. Each time I repeat the phrase, you write a thought. After finishing a few rounds of writing thoughts, I will ask you to read them out loud to the class.”

As a bonus, absurd motivation, I said: “If you read your thought out loud, you get a penny, so you get ‘a penny for your thought.’” The novelty did not wear off through many repetitions of the quotation for my fifth grade students. This was a “serious fun” activity (good for grades 3 to 6), and I did not mind getting rid of 100 or 200 pennies. It was worth it in the end.

Note: Instead of writing their thoughts, you might want to make it an oral lesson, where children express their thoughts verbally. Teacher calls out the quote and kids respond with their thoughts. The purpose is to have them become aware of the thinking process and their thoughts. I liked the writing aspect because it reinforced the skill, and now, forty years later, with the Internet and social media (Twitter), you might want students to write thoughts in the compressed manner of a 140-character tweet. Also, if they are hesitant or a little anxious about reading their thoughts out loud, collect their papers and read them anonymously. The following are samples of “penny-thoughts” my class rattled off during these lessons.


  • I was thinking it was 3:00 PM. Time to go home.
  • I am mad because I went home for lunch and no one was there. I went home for nothing.
  • I thought I was a big man walking home. But I said to myself that I am not a big man. I am a boy. But every thought came up man, men, man.
  • While we were in music, a girl was crying because she did not want to do the work that they gave her.
  • I thought I was walking in the sky. But while I was walking, somebody woke me up. I

was sad. At night, when going to sleep, I dreamed I was in the sky. It was beautiful and I felt happy. I looked like an angel flying.

  • I had a very hard day. I had a very bad ear ache. I told the teacher about it. He said I could go to the bathroom. Maybe that would help.
  • When Marisol told me her uncle died I said I am sorry that he died.
  • Today is a very nice day. I saw a large bird in my head. It was me looking like an eagle.
  • I imagined that I was in a pool drowning and nobody was there to help me. It was very quiet with no noise in the water.
  • My brother had a fight with a guy who had a knife. I saw my brother with blood on him.
  • I thought the teacher was going to take us on a trip, but he didn’t. I felt sad.
  • I imagined Ralph got out of the class and all the girls were happy because he is a pain.
  • My best, best friends are Arthur and Miguel and I want it to be that way because they are like brothers and we always play games like dodge together.

The pennies were flying—I tossed them softly at the kids—and so were the thoughts. Call out “A penny for your thoughts” and let children respond with their thoughts, first in writing, and then by reading them out loud. Repeat the quote five to ten times. Give them a minute or two to write. After completing several rounds, kids read their responses orally. It is a motivational lesson to get them thinking, to stir their minds and creative imaginations, in simple terms, to have a fun “thinking party,” while at the same time, show kids there can be entertainment and pleasure in this demanding skill.

After re-viewing the past penny-thought lessons, I realized new possibilities that would increase its educational value. I did not question the children about their thoughts, thinking, and how their thinking got them to a particular thought. To expand the lesson and to make it deeper, or more “rigorous,” I would probe their thoughts with questions.

Note: If it is too difficult to create questions spontaneously, collect their papers and read

them overnight. Make mental notes of what questions you would ask the class the following day. Check out these “penny-thoughts”—from the same fifth grade class—with questions.


  • I remembered when I was doing my homework. I made a mistake and I was so mad that I wanted to cry. I failed to succeed.

Questions: Why do you think this thought was remembered? Why did it come up? What

words in the writing “sting” or hurt? What is negative thinking or self-talk? Do you find yourself getting caught up in this at times? How do you stop it? Give an example from your life.

  • I thought I was floating on a cloud and drifting in the cool air. I felt great.

Questions: Aren’t fantasy thoughts fun? Why? Where does your mind and imagination go? How do you get into them? Can this fantasy thinking become a problem? Why? How often do you get into fantasy thinking or drift away in a fantasy world? Give examples.

  • I was thinking about the class. They are always fighting and getting mad at each other and I wish they would stop.

Questions: Why would this thought come up to any student in the class? Do you think about the class vibes or the feelings you experience sitting in a classroom? Does that affect your learning? Why do we think about the other kids in the classroom? Does the classroom environment affect you concentration? Does the “fighting class” bother you like the writer? Why? What feelings is the writer expressing in this thought?

  • I had a thought that I was going to be the dumbest girl in the class because I always think that I can’t do or write things. But now I know I can.

Questions: Why do you think the thought came up in the student’s mind? How would this type of thinking hold kids back from doing well? Can thinking you’re dumb really make you dumb? How do you change it? Can you make negative thinking into positive thinking? Do you ever compare your intelligence, brains, or “smarts,” to others? Why? Where does this thinking get you? How do you prevent it? Did you ever see yourself as “dumb”? Give a real life example.

  • I thought I was a flower and a little girl took me and kept me forever.

Questions: When you think (thoughts), do you see them visually as mind-pictures? What images do you visualize in this thought? What feelings do the images express? What does the student’s thought get you to think about? Can a simple thought or mind-picture take you on a journey in your mind? Why does this happen? Can a thought create a whole story in your imagination? Is it healthy to let your imagination go, at times, and just enjoy the ride? Why or why not? Can you visualize the “life and times of the flower and little girl”? What does it make you think about? Can you create a story using the thought expressed here?

  • Little dog little, I go to a little dog, named Mr. Pflaum, my teacher.

Questions: Why is it healthy to think humorous thoughts? What can it do for you or the writer? How do you create goofy thoughts? What happens first? Do you get into silly things in your mind? What funny mind-picture did you visualize in the student’s thought? What makes the picture funny? Do you ever imagine your teacher in a ridiculous situation, place, or scene? Give an example. Why do we think these things about our teachers, parents, brothers, sisters, and friends? What is the purpose?

  • I thought I was a feeling of love and an expression of love.

Questions: How “deep” is your love? How far can a “feeling” and an “expression” of love take you? Where will the thought take the writer? What mind-picture(s) does the thought trigger in your mind? Besides love, what other feelings are triggered by the thought? Do you see different colors? What other thoughts come up? Are “feel-good thoughts” helpful for you and in your life? Why or why not? Do you get into them? Give an example from your experience.

  • I thought I was dead and they were praying for me.

Questions: Why would you think that? How do we get into scary thoughts? How do we get out of them? Do all kids and adults have thoughts like this? How would, or do you, change them? Our thoughts create mind-pictures and feelings: What do you see and feel in this thought? Can you recall a “scary” thought you had? How did you handle or deal with it? Did it go away?

  • My sister was crying because her guy left her. I felt sad for her.

Questions: What does the thought show about the writer? Are your thoughts always about you? Can you forget about yourself and think about and feel for others? Is the world “all-about-you”? How do you change your thinking if you are selfish and your only thoughts are about yourself? What does it mean to be sensitive to, and care for, other kids? Is this a good thing, or are you being foolish by considering others’ lives?

  • I was angry with my friend and she was angry with me, too. She walked away and told her mother, and her mother told me to be friends and I said, “okay,” but I was still mad at her and she was my friend.

Questions: The student was angry with her friend, but why do you think she expressed the thought? Do you get angry thoughts about friends, parents, teachers, brothers, sisters, or other people? How do you handle them? How do you calm down or quiet those feelings? Do you ever visualize mind-pictures connected to anger? Do you see “red”? Do you think the mother handled the situation well? Why was the writer still mad at the end? What do you think bothered her the most? What really confused her?


How do I make up my questions? I treat “the thought” as a reading comprehension passage by scanning and then focusing on each word, phrase, sentence, idea, feeling, image, meaning, memory, reflection, and experience mentioned. I am brainstorming ideas in the form of questions, call it question storming, constantly thinking, analyzing everything, getting at the heart of the writing, and most of all, trying to make it fun, motivating, and thought-provoking (pun intended) by getting kids’ to tune into the big show. Note: This is a simplified explanation on how I crank out questions for class discussions. Question storming is not an easy teaching skill to develop, however, with practice, it can and will become a great tool to use in all lessons.

Thought storming by students and question storming by the teacher will create a buzz and will

wake up and shake up the class. The lesson opens children’s ears and eyes, as well as the teacher’s, and hopefully, will affect their perceptions of themselves, others, and the world in a beneficial way.

Thought-Note: It takes much probing and thinking to make any lesson work, but that is what you want and expect from your students when they learn, so why can’t we do it as teachers? Aren’t we students at the same time as we are teachers?

From my experience, the kids will really enjoy getting into these things because they are rarely dealt with in school, at home, or with friends, so let them have fun with it.

After introducing the “penny-thoughts” lesson, I set up a BONUS BOX, where students could write down thoughts when they had a free moment in the classroom (although I told them not to interrupt an ongoing lesson). I placed several packs of 3” x 5” index cards in the box to facilitate their writing experience. Both sides of the card were used for writing different thoughts anonymously. Whenever I had some down time, I read aloud the thoughts that were in their minds and imaginations. The thoughts can be read with or without questioning, depending on the time available and class schedule.

To conclude the post, I will leave you more sample student “penny-thoughts.” See what questions you can create mentally. Brainstorm your questions (question storm) by considering carefully the words, phrases, sentences, and anything you can cull from the thoughts. In your lesson, there will be a lot of material to work with to trigger a dynamic and informative discussion. The dialogue should ignite a cross-fertilization of ideas, feelings, and experiences, which will be greatly appreciated by children and adults alike.


  • I was angry because I woke up late for school. I was sleepy and was having a nice dream and my mother woke me up.
  • I imagined I was a pencil. People knocked me down, stepped on me, and killed me.
  • I remembered when I tried catching a bird because it couldn’t fly. I jumped after it and fell and the bird flew away.
  • I thought I was the teacher and the children were real noisy and I started screaming at


  • I thought I was a flower, but I am not. I became sad. I want people to like me.
  • My thought was about love: “I love everybody in the world!”
  • I imagined what it would be like to live in a cloud. It would be sweet in my house of clouds.
  • I remembered writing poems in class. They are fun to write and one of these days I’m going to write a lot of poems.
  • I thought I was as tiny as a mouse. It was so scary.
  • Today we went outside and played handball and won. I am so happy!
  • Today I thought I was a star and the sun flying all around the world.
  • I thought that Manny and I were going to fight at lunchtime.
  • I thought I was scared of everyone and that everyone would beat me up.
  • I wish I could float on air and live there.
  • I thought I was going to fail the reading test.
  • I was thinking that when they give me homework, it looks like school in my house, study not play.
  • I’m scared because tomorrow I will act in a play. I’m really scared.
  • I was thinking about contemplation. It’s good and fun to me. Contemplation is important in my life.

A penny for your thoughts…and your questions…

Check out articles, blog posts, Internet interviews, sample student writing, published student poetry, and educational podcasts by Jeffrey Pflaum at the following:

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