Posts filed under 'Content Areas'

How Expert is Expert When You are In Eighth Grade?

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionWe continue our series of blog posts about teaching social studies by author and teacher Sarah Cooper with this thoughtful piece where Sarah wonders about teaching depth and breadth, helping students become experts on a topic, and helping them make arguments that will stand up outside of the classroom.

How Expert is Expert When You are in Eighth Grade?
By Sarah Cooper

What obligation do we have to make our students experts on a topic before they give opinions about it?

Or, said a different way: are we being irresponsible if we encourage our students to tackle big questions before they have enough information to address them? What constitutes “enough information,” anyway?

Recently I’ve been wondering about the balance between exposure and depth, between familiarity and expertise. The questions above filled my head at the end of our recent unit on the American Revolution in eighth-grade history. In addition to the 1760s and 1770s, we also discussed current events: a United Nations summit, the fight against Islamic State, the spread of Ebola, the California drought, and other articles students brought in.

The unit’s culminating assignment was a debate on Wednesday, which students knew would also be their essay prompt for a test on Thursday. The question for both the debate and the essay was this:

Given what you have learned in the Revolution unit (about freedoms, rebellions, etc.), how much do you think the United States should be involved in world problems, and why?

I hoped students would see connections between the freedoms the colonists fought for and the opportunities that people in countries around the world are fighting for today.

Students were assigned to groups of interventionists, isolationists, and moderates. Every idea they brought into the debate had to be supported by a fact, either a historical one or a current event. The goal was for the debate—and the two days of preparation for it—to serve as brainstorming and prewriting for the test essay.

Debating did allow them to practice their thoughts before writing them down, as well as borrow ideas from their classmates to help their case. In their essays, students cited evidence they had heard in the debate, from France’s becoming an ally after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 to the need for the United States to address its nearly $18 billion national debt before helping out other countries.

Yet I realized as I read the essays that the excitement and intensity of the debate may have oversimplified things. Here’s an example of a strong argument from one of the essays:

If you don’t have the steady base it will be imbalanced and fall. The United States is that base that starts a new creation. . . . Like in 1775 we met again for the Second Continental Congress for discussing war against Britain. We also continued to fight, and created a Declaration of Independence for what we wanted: freedom. Taking these actions and fighting for what we wanted led to a victory. From then on we have had the obligation to intervene and help solve world conflicts. I believe this is right, because it is the moral choice.

I liked the building logic of this essay’s argument, and the vocabulary is excellent. The student is thinking. This excerpt contains a specific and accurate fact from 1775, and it gives commentary on the Revolution that links history to today.

On the other hand, there’s a big part of me that feels negligent because this writer has leaped over 200-plus years of history—with almost zero knowledge of 1783 to 2014—and ended with a grand, sweeping statement about the United States’ “obligation to intervene.”

Many other essays took a similar leap, with some attempting to land on World War II in the process. We had studied that time period only through FDR’s “Freedom from Fear” speech from January 1941, in an attempt to relate his freedoms to the Revolution’s ideals, but many know about World War II from their parents or popular culture.

One writer put it this way in another essay:

Even though we did not want to get involved we soon learned our lesson, and learned that we have to [get involved] after the Pearl Harbor attack. This attack shows the idea of us just being an open target for attack if we are trying to stay out of conflict and not defending ourselves. . . . The example with World War II is similar with our involvement in Ebola. This is because Ebola is a deadly disease that Africa does not have enough money or supplies to cure and if the US does not help stop it the disease will eventually spread to the US and kill several American people just like World War II would have if we did not jump in and help.

Again, the cause-and-effect is good. The analogy, as far as it goes, is a decent one. Yet there’s a part of me that thinks I’m encouraging students to oversimplify, to believe they have something to say even when their analysis would not stand up in the world beyond our classroom.

Maybe the key lies in welcoming the imperfect. As I often tell my students, the answers to the questions we’re asking could fill books. Maybe I need to accept that they’re going to take a reasonably informed stab at the idea and, ideally, get excited while doing so.

David N. Perkins, founding member and senior codirector of Harvard’s innovative Project Zero, suggests that “ways of knowing can come in junior versions,” as meaningful entry points to historical or mathematical thinking.

In Perkins’s book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014), he describes a teacher in Australia who tackled number theory with her third graders: “The conjectures were not very sophisticated and the ideas about proof and evidence not very fancy, but the point is that these students were making a start, and doing so with some enthusiasm” (160).

Despite my reservations, the middle schoolers last week were definitely “making a start” at solving the world’s problems. Now I think I’ll make a start, during the rest of the year, at filling in some highlights between the end of the Revolutionary War and the second term of the Obama administration!

Add comment November 25th, 2014

Science and Language Arts: A Perfect Pair

In their new book Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2, authors Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley help teachers think about teaching life science in a whole new way by marrying fiction and nonfiction picture books. In this blog post the authors explain why it makes so much sense to combine language arts and science instruction and how their book can put ideas into action.

Perfect PairsScience and Language Arts: A Perfect Pair

According to a recent study, scientists spend 60–70 percent of their time reading, writing, and communicating. Literacy is an authentic part of science.
—Bill Badders, past president of the National Science Teachers Association

The secret is out: there’s a deep and critical connection between the process of doing science and what we generally think of as ELA skills. So doesn’t it make sense to combine science and language arts instruction? Not only is it effective, but it’s also a great way for time-strapped teachers to sneak science into their busy school-day schedule.

How can you put this idea into action? You can start with Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K–2. This resource includes twenty-two lessons built around award-winning picture books that you or your school library may already own.

Studies show that some children connect more strongly with nonfiction books whereas others gravitate toward fiction. Coauthor Nancy Chesley and I have paired thematically similar fiction and nonfiction children’s books and developed innovative activities that simultaneously teach age-appropriate science concepts and cultivate such ELA skills as identifying key details in a text, building content-area vocabulary, understanding the relationship between words and pictures, comparing texts, writing expository texts, and participating in shared research and writing projects.

For each lesson, we started by developing a Wonder Statement that incorporates a science concept typically taught in grades K–2. Examples include the following:

I wonder what plants and animals need to live and grow.
I wonder how animals protect themselves from predators.
I wonder how a rain forest is different from a desert.

After a fun, engaging introductory activity, teachers read the two featured books aloud and work with students to build data tables that organize information from the fiction and nonfiction texts. This part of the lesson models an important skill students will need later as they gather research for reports and extract information from reading passages to answer questions on assessment tests.

At key points in each lesson, students use pictures and words to record ideas and insights in Wonder Journals. Finally, they participate in a fun inquiry activity that helps them synthesize what they’ve learned.

The lesson about what plants and animals need to live and grow pairs two very popular books: The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer and From Seed to Pumpkin by Wendy Pfeffer. But there is plenty of room for flexibility. If these books aren’t easily available, you could substitute The Snail’s Spell by Joanne Ryder and Seed, Soil, Sun by Cris Peterson.

If you’d prefer to study animals and plants separately, you could pair The Snail’s Spell and Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah Campbell first, and then focus on Jack’s Garden by Henry Cole and Seed, Soil, Sun afterward.

It’s also easy to integrate your own creative ideas into our three-step investigative process:

  1. Engage students.
  2. Explore with students.
  3. Encourage students to draw conclusions.

For example, if you are pairing The Snail’s Spell and Wolfsnail, you could engage students by inviting them to pretend they are snails and act out how they think the animals get what they need to live and grow. If you decide to pair Jack’s Garden and Seed, Soil, Sun, the “engage” part of the lesson could involve a fun card-sorting game or perhaps a reader’s theater.

During the “explore” part of the lesson, the teacher mines the books’ content with her or his class and helps students organize the critical ideas in a meaningful way. Then to bring all of the ideas together and fully address the Wonder Statement, students may engage in paired, small-group, or whole-class discussions. To reinforce the thinking that that comes out of these conversations, we recommend a concluding activity. For example, students might write acrostic poems with the letters in the words water, sunlight, or food. Or they could form Sun, Water, and Food teams and name living things that need their team to survive.

While Perfect Pairs provides specific, detailed ideas and instructions for lessons that address the Next Generation Science Standards, teachers can easily use our investigative process model to design alternate lessons for teaching the concepts mandated by their state science frameworks. It’s a great way to bring science and ELA instruction together.

3 comments November 5th, 2014

In the Schoolyard: The Tale of the Tape

We are starting — or rather, re-starting — an occasional web series with author Herb Broda, whose books Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors encourage teachers to take advantage of the natural surroundings around their schools, whether it’s a concrete slab parking lot, or woods and a stream. “The schoolyard can provide a powerful change of pace and place for enhancing instruction,” he says.  In this series Herb will share activities that can be taken directly into — or out of — the classroom and engage students across the content areas. For this first activity, all you need is a leaf and a piece of paper.

The Tale of the Tape

Process skills cut across conDSC03639tent lines and are important in most all fields of study. For example, being able to analyze data, information, or situations is just as important in social studies as it is in science, mathematics, or literature. Likewise, observing, describing, classifying, organizing, inferring, predicting, and evaluating have universal application. Process skills can be taught either indoors or out. However, by occasionally going outside to focus on cross-disciplinary skills such as observing and describing, we can add welcome variety to instruction.

Here is an activity that focuses on two process skills that are integral to developing  writers and critical thinkers: observing and describing. Although I have used this activity successfully both inside and outside, it has maximum impact when done outside. There is something about nature that seems to pull at all the senses and heighten creativity.

What you will need: masking tape, leaves or other natural objects, and a roll of adding machine tape. Students use a two or three foot strip of adding machine tape to record a long list of words or phrases that describe the leaf. This unusual writing surface works well to foster creative thinking.

Each student is given a strip of the paper, a leaf (all of which come from the same bush or tree), and a piece of masking tape. Students tape the leaf to the top of the strip and write as many words or phrases as possible that describe something about the leaf. Encourage them to fill the tape with descriptive words! Allow enough time for the “furrowed brow” to develop. The first ten or twelve items are usually pretty easy to do-it’s the next ten or fifteen that really force close observation and creative thinking. Let students remove the leaf from the paper to get a better look.

When you see that most have exhausted their word banks, ask a volunteer to read his or her list very slowly. As the list is read, students should check off items that are the same or very similar to what they have written. You can also have one student keep a master list of all the words that are generated. As others read the items that they still have unmarked, continue to add to the master list.

Depending on your objective and the age of the students, your follow-up discussion can take a variety of turns. You can simply emphasize that there are many words that can be used to describe a simple object. For a class of twenty, you will probably come up with more than one hundred different descriptive words. It’s a valuable learning experience for kids just to see that people can look at the same object and see many different things. It’s also interesting to have students look at their lists and see if they can find any patterns. Often, you can quickly tell who has the scientific bent in the group (lobed, chlorophyll, food factory), or the artistic (emerald green, symmetrical) or the tactile (rough, soft, fuzzy). Kids quickly see that the mind gets in one track for awhile and generates descriptors all of one type. When that well goes dry, the brain dips into another source.

This activity is a great way to emphasize the power of careful observation-a critical skill in any content area. Teachers use this activity very successfully as a motivator or introduction to the study of adjectives and descriptive writing. It’s a good one to use prior to any activity that demands rich description or careful observation. Not much adaptation is needed for varying grade levels. Of course, higher grade levels will generate more complex and varied descriptive words or phrases. At upper grade levels, the activity can serve as an entry into a topic (e.g., use stones instead of leaves as an introduction to a geology unit). I know some high school science teachers who use it prior to a study of plants.

Teachers have used many items for this activity. Stones, twigs, leaves, and even kernels of corn have been taped to the paper strips. It’s most effective to use natural materials that come from the same source (like twigs from the same tree, or corn kernels from the same ear). The power of this activity emerges when students realize that a wide diversity of observations can be generated from looking at very similar objects.

Step outside and try the Tale of the Tape. Treat yourself and your students to a change of pace and place!

2 comments October 22nd, 2014

Striving for Slow

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionSummer is winding down and many of you are back in your classrooms and back to the hectic days of fall. In her new post Sarah Cooper invites you to linger in summer for a bit longer and consider what the slow pace of summer can teach you about, well, teaching. “The more time I take, the more sophisticated the students’ work becomes, and the more I understand how they learn,” she writes. Sarah teaches U.S. History at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California and she is the author of Making History Mine.

Striving for Slow

Summer is the land of slow for teachers.

Slow mornings when we have time to sit and read the paper. Slow afternoons when we drink coffee with a colleague and talk in terms of what-ifs, not what must be done, in the classroom next year.

Even those of us who teach summer school, take care of family or attend professional growth seminars find that the days dance to a different rhythm. Calmer. Not dictated by bells or meetings. Subject to more of our control, our curiosity.

The “slow teaching movement” has gained momentum in the past several years, often encouraging us to let go of technology’s grip a bit.

Right now, I’m not talking as much about technology as about time.

As a friend and I commiserate every August, “Why can’t we bring more of the summer pace into the school year?”

We can’t always fight against a schedule cramped for minutes. But we can give our students time within that schedule to think, reflect, and discover themselves as learners.

From the lazy, mellow perspective of summer’s end, I’ll share a few slow stories, two about our students and one about us as teachers.

Story 1: More Research Time in Class = More Fun

Last year, for an extended research project, my eighth-grade U.S. history students did easily 80 percent of the work in class. I kept reserving more and more days in our library computer lab and ended up with ten 43-minute periods, about seven hours total.

With all of this time to work in class, students could:

  • Land on a topic they really cared about, not one they picked because they had to make a quick choice. (“This guy’s last name is the same as my favorite soccer player…”)
  • Find rich sources, not just the first ones they stumbled across late at night while they were also texting their friends.
  • Ask questions about how to do a works cited list and parenthetical citation.
  • Paraphrase quotations thoroughly to ensure they weren’t plagiarizing.
  • Find additional sources once they started writing if they realized their argument needed more support.

This ended up being the most library time I had ever spent on an assignment. I expected that the projects would be better as a result, and they were. The students found scholarly sources, discovered insightful quotations within them, and linked the facts more adroitly because of the extra time.

What I didn’t expect were the comments from students that the project was fun only because they had enough time to work on it, inside and outside of class. This statement, repeated again and again in their written feedback, has convinced me of the power of slow projects to increase engagement.

(Not incidentally, giving time to work in class also meant that students were not distracted by electronic devices, making their focus sharper.)

Story 2: More Writing Time in Class = More Creativity

At the end of a unit on civil rights during the Civil War with “Glory” as centerpiece, I wanted students to follow their curiosity. They could explore any question they had about the topic through a mini-research project.

However, we didn’t have much time: two days in class doing research, and Monday class plus Monday night’s homework to do a 250-word creative or interpretive response.

As students wrote their reflections that Monday morning, many of them were just starting to hit their stride when we had ten minutes left.

I envisioned the homework saga that night: Some students would want to spend an hour finishing but would become distracted or pulled away by other homework or extracurriculars. The final products, hurriedly stapled on Tuesday morning, would seem rushed and unfinished. Oh, and all the eighth graders were going on a class trip on Wednesday.

So I nixed the preview of nuclear warfare I had planned and instead gave everyone the day to work, with the absolute stipulation that they needed to finish by the end of class.

The eighth graders were grateful, and I really enjoyed reading their projects, including one by Wylie that combined visual and linguistic literacy, comparing Navy recruiting posters from the Civil War and World War I.

The World War I poster, featuring a man tinkering with a sub’s diesel engine, “seems more like an inspirational drawing,” Wylie said, “while the emblem and big title on the Civil War poster give it a very straightforward look.”

Story 3: Less is More, Period

Every year I try to do less and make that less count more – by addressing multiple standards and skills through a close reading of one primary source document rather than three, for instance.

Every time I forget to do less – which happens regularly when I hope to cram in one last skill or idea – I end up driving myself and my students a little crazy.

Last month I taught a weeklong summer school English class for ninth graders. We worked with five elements of voice, as described by Nancy Dean in her excellent Voice Lessons.

The class lasted two hours each day, with a ten-minute break in the middle. For each 55-minute session, I imagined we would read aloud a piece of literature, annotate it, discuss it as a class, pair up to identify elements of voice, come back together to talk about them, and write individual thesis statements on the passage. And then I thought I’d “fill in” the rest of the time with a ten-minute sponge activity on diction or imagery.

It’s funny, even writing out that entire list makes me tired. And I realized on the first day that, even though a number of kids in the back were restless here and there, we would gain more from staying with a document five extra minutes than we would from a sharp transition to something else.

So we stayed with it.

During pairs work, I took the time to look at passages each group had annotated, asked students to go deeper in many instances, and circled back to check that they had.

During full-class discussion, we looked at several more lines of poetry than I usually would. When arms and legs started twitching, I asked the kids if they wanted a stretch break. No, they said, being polite.

So a minute later, when one student volunteered the word “nonchalant” to describe a poem’s tone, we defined it and then I asked them all to stand “nonchalantly.” After they sat down, full of attitude, we looked at one more fabulous metaphor with new eyes.

Going Slowly Isn’t Easy

It can be easier to assign a rat-a-tat series of activities, as I did for my first years teaching, than it can be to listen to, critique and circle back to students’ ideas. It’s less messy to assign research to be done at home than to supervise it in class, with the inevitable off-task moments and dead ends.

But it’s not less fulfilling. The more time I take, the more sophisticated the students’ work becomes, and the more I understand how they learn.

Now, can someone please remind me about all of this slow summer thinking when the frenzy of October comes along?

2 comments August 21st, 2014

Now Online: Perfect Pairs

Perfect PairsHands-on science lessons are great for teaching many science concepts in the primary grades, but when it comes to life science, you need more. Award-winning science author Melissa Stewart and Milken Educator Nancy Chesley share an innovative way to bring a whole world of plants, animals, ecosystems, and natural processes to life in their new book, Perfect Pairs.

By pairing the very best nonfiction science books with fiction picture books, Melissa and Nancy build the kinds of “minds-on” learning experiences that appeal to a wide variety of students while supporting the latest science and English language arts standards.

The heart of the book presents 22 engaging and easy-to-implement lessons categorized by grade (K, 1, and 2) that use pairs of fiction and nonfiction books to teach a wide variety of topics such as what animals eat, how a plant’s parts help it survive, habitats, biomes, wetlands, and more. Each lesson invites students to wonder about a life science idea and uses the books to guide the class through an investigative process, encouraging students to draw conclusions.

Perfect Pairs will change the way you teach science and leave a lasting impression on your students. You can preview the entire book now on the Stenhouse website.

Add comment August 6th, 2014

Blogstitute Post 7: Nurturing Future Stewards of the Earth

This is the last week of our Blogstitute and we end our summer PD event with this great post by Laurie Rubin, author of To Look Closely: Science and Literacy in the Natural World. Laurie provides a great list of resources about animals, nature, and scientists to inspire all budding readers to take a closer look at our environment and to find peace and inspiration under every rock. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win a package of 8 free Stenhouse books! Last week’s winner is Patricia Maia.

Last week I noticed an old rock pile on my way back from a birding walk near our country home. Feeling lucky to find a new supply of flat rocks for my perennial garden, I picked one up to carry back with me. When I turned it over, I was even more delighted to discover two light-brown furry cocoons. Eager to know what kind of insect would emerge (I was thinking moth), I positioned the rock at the edge of the deck, planning to examine it every day.

I wish I could report that I have been turning over rocks from a young and tender age. Not so. Instead it was only in my fifties that I embraced the natural world with all my senses, alert to the ever-changing landscape of trees, flowers, insects, and birds in my neighborhood. Perhaps that is why I became passionate about connecting my second-grade students to this same world, hoping to give them the head start I never had.

As I watched my students’ connection to the natural world gradually transform into concern, I looked for opportunities to nurture future stewards of our planet. When I searched for biographies for an annual study of peacemakers, I included books about conservationists and environmental activists. I wanted to provide models of real people working to preserve our natural heritage. I read aloud picture books about Rachel Carson, Harriet Hemenway, and Marion Stoddart, who worked, respectively, to ban DDT, outlaw trade in wild bird feathers, and stop paper mills from polluting our nation’s rivers.

Recently I was looking for a picture book to read to my five-year-old granddaughter about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who—after witnessing the deforestation of her homeland—launched the Green Belt Movement, which mobilized women to plant trees. I discovered many more stories about women scientists and activists, which in addition to promoting respect for the natural world provide a powerful resource to inspire girls to enter careers in science.

Two books about Maathai emphasize her activism. Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2008; grades K–2) tells her story in simple text while Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson and illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler (Lee & Low Books, 2010; grades 2–5) recounts a more detailed portrayal that highlights her extraordinary path to education and activism as a woman. Both have colorful, engaging illustrations. Read these books to inspire stewardship of the natural world and peacemaking.

“‘Once you are aware of the wonder and beauty of the earth,’ she scribbled in her journal, ‘you will want to learn about it.’” This is one of the many direct quotes Laurie Lawlor includes in her book Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World (Holiday House, 2012; grades 3–5). Carson’s book Silent Spring exposed the detrimental effect of pesticides and inspired our modern environmental movement. The warm tempera and ink illustrations by Laura Beingessner will draw your students into the wonders of the deep sea and the authenticity of soup kitchens and DDT trucks. Read this book to inspire persuasive writing and stewardship of the natural world or to illustrate the use of primary source documents.

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, by Margarita Engle with pictures by Julie Paschkis (Henry Holt & Company, 2010; grades 1–3), is written in the first person and tells the story of how Maria Sybilla Merian, born in Germany in 1647, used her observations of insects, flowers, and amphibians to reveal the natural process of metamorphosis. She helped disprove the prevailing belief in “spontaneous generation”—that butterflies (called summer birds), moths, and frogs were formed from mud. Ahead of her time, through her notes, sketches, and vibrant paintings, she became a significant contributor to the field of entomology. Read this book to accompany a unit on insect life cycles or to introduce nature journaling or the inquiry skills of observation and questioning.

Another book about a woman ahead of her times is The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Katherine Olivia Sessions grew up in southern California and became the first woman to graduate with a degree in science at the University of California in 1881. She researched trees that can grow in the desert and developed a plant nursery that ultimately established San Diego’s Balboa Park, known today for its enormous variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. Read this book for a unit on trees or deserts, or a companion read with Wangari’s Trees of Peace. (Beach Lane Books, New York. 2013. Grades 1-3.)

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists, written by Jeannine Atkins and illustrated by Paula Conner (Dawn Publications, 2000; grades 4–8), is a chapter book that chronicles the lives of Anna Botsford Comstock, Frances Hamerstrom, Miriam Rothschild, and Jane Goodall, as well as the aforementioned Carson and Merian. Comstock started a movement to bring nature study into public schools when she wrote The Handbook of Nature Study. Hamerstrom’s studies of prairie chickens showed that the conservation of habitats was crucial to the survival of animal species. Rothschild was a world authority on fleas and planted 120 species of wildflowers to bring back the butterflies that were dying out. Goodall, known for her work with primates, still lectures around the world in support of animals and their habitats. This is an important read, especially for girls, about women throughout the ages who have made significant contributions to science and conservation. Use this book for literature groups focusing on biography or environmental activism.

P.S. Pleased as I was to join the community of “girls who look under rocks,” by day two my precious cocoons were gone, most likely eaten by one of the many birds that come to our feeder each day. What was I thinking? The more I learn about the natural world, the more there is to know!

13 comments July 7th, 2014

Time for Current Events: It’s Worth It

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionWe continue our series with Sarah Cooper, who teaches U.S. History at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and this week she talks about the importance of weekly current events discussions and shares her strategies for getting her eighth graders interested and excited about the news.

Talking about current events with eighth graders is rarely boring. They gravitate to the weird and quirky. They generate a million questions about subjects I thought I knew. They rarely hesitate to give an opinion, reasoned or not.

To them, everything is new, and everything is news.

This year I changed several things about weekly current events discussions. Friday presentations had always provided a relaxing end to the week, but I was hoping to create a true current events culture.

Through a process that is still imperfect and evolving, my students became not only more curious but also more literate and informed. Here’s what I recommend.

1.      Devote the entire period, not just fifteen or twenty minutes, to the news.

This year I realized that, if I want current events to be front and center, they need to have more time on stage. So we discuss the news for the entire period rather than half a period. What does this look like?

  • Rearrange the furniture. When my first class comes in on Fridays, they move desks into two semicircles, one in front of the other. Rather than our usual rows or pairs, this structure leads to back-and-forth discussion and gives the sense of front-row seats to an event. The back row can get chatty, but the freer atmosphere feels appropriately adult to discuss world affairs.
  • Present articles to the class. Two or three students give summaries of an article of their choice, answering questions and often facilitating a brief discussion on topics such as teacher tenure or water rights.
  • Share stories in pairs. The students who aren’t presenting each bring in an article. They tell a partner enough of the story that their partner can tell it to someone else.
  • Improvise. Depending on how much time we have left, I ask students to do any of a variety of activities to cement the day’s news in their brains, such as the following:
  • Write a few sentences about why they chose their current event.
  • Talk with a partner about their opinion on a controversial story.

2.      Give students the lexicon to understand the headlines.

I wanted the eighth graders to have enough of a vocabulary to tackle intimidating headlines. So they memorized forty common terms at the beginning of the year, such as atrocities, chemical weapons, and U.N. Security Council, many of which were suggested by my Facebook friends.

At the end of first semester, Sophia brought in a story called “Bipartisan Agreement to Hold Off New Iran Sanctions” and didn’t bat an eyelash at the language. We had leapfrogged one of the most difficult parts of following the news: understanding the jargon of world politics.

3.      Assess current events; don’t just talk about them.

Simply knowing the vocabulary wasn’t sufficient. I also wanted students to demonstrate that they could analyze most articles that came their way. The Common Core social studies standards emphasize literacy, such as finding a text’s thesis or describing how it presents information, and current events promote such engagement with language.

To solidify the connection between history and the news, I made current events the centerpiece of the major essay on our two-hour midterm and final exams.

For the final, students could choose to write about one of two newspaper stories: “Women Make New Gains in the Senate” or “Young Ukrainians Brush Aside the Crisis and Voice Optimism About the Future.” They annotated the piece and then wrote an essay linking the kinds of change shown in the current event (such as fast and slow, violent and nonviolent) to the kinds of change we had learned about in U.S. history this semester in units on women’s history, American reformers, civil rights, and total war.

The results were not all pretty. Some students focused too much on the articles and didn’t refer enough to history, some wrote overly general essays because making connections proved difficult, and many referred to historical trends but gave hardly any facts. (See “What Does a Good Fact Look Like, Anyway?”)

But the essay assignment succeeded in one wild way: Students had to think on the spot. All of them. No canned essays, no excuses. It was like a contemporary document-based question, to take a page from the AP exam.

And so I saw responses such as this one from Kiefer, who insisted, “Ukraine is not America. The people of Ukraine are being ordered around from countries in different parts of the world. Russia is being extremely militant about their uprising. People are outspoken. This is one of the reasons Ukraine may be inclined to react violently about its revolution. Nonviolence did work for the Civil Rights Act, but for a people facing a government much more inclined to fight, violence may be the only answer.”

Or Alexia, who pointed out that “fighting for your rights doesn’t always mean radical action.”

Or James, who asked, “Who will be Ukraine’s Eugene Debs? Its Alice Paul, its Frederick Douglass?”

We still have a long way to go. I won’t claim victory until every student reads the top headlines every day and talks about the news with an adult several times a week.

But there have been small markers of success. A number of parents have commented that it is fun to talk with their children about world issues, that their kids show “a high level of engagement” because of our Fridays. And students will often come in asking if I’ve seen a certain story—enough that I start class late some days.

By the end of the year, these eighth graders inspired a higher level of news literacy for me. The morning is not complete without reading the headlines on my phone.

And I’ve been reminded why I’ve always loved newspapers. They give a frontline take on history. They create a community of readers. And they are full of possibility.

Add comment June 11th, 2014

Making Notecards Exciting (Really!)

Teacher and author Sarah Cooper returned to teaching U.S. history this year after teaching English for four years and she will be joining us here on the Stenhouse blog regularly to share some stories and strategies from her classroom. Her first post is about notecards and how she and her students made the transition from the low-tech pieces of paper to high-tech electronic versions. (Technophobes need not be afraid!) Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and teaches at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California.

MakiCooper author photo bigger resolutionng Notecards Exciting (Really!)

I loved doing research notecards as a child.

A family legend from third grade has me standing in the living room, cards in hand, smocked dress ironed, hair pixie-cut, ready to rehearse a three-minute talk.

“Bats,” I enunciated in my sharpest, most Hermione Granger voice.

I could organize my world, and the World Book Encyclopedia entry, in the space of three-by-five inches.

Needless to say, research notecards have never been quite as popular for most of the eighth graders I teach.

They understand why our history department requires the cards in grades 7 through 9 as a foundation, before students choose their own organizational method in grades 10 through 12. The cards help them avoid plagiarism, weave together facts, and create arguments based on other people’s research.

But that doesn’t mean they like doing them. The process is seriously detail-oriented.

So this year, when I returned to teaching history after four years of English, I wanted to find a way to make notecards fun, or at least a little snazzy.

At first I was reluctant to try electronic notecards because I didn’t want to lose the tangible moment of spreading and stacking cards to create an outline. But after realizing that students could still sort cards printed on half-sheets of paper—and after learning that our ninth-grade history team was switching over to electronic cards this year–I was convinced.

Our library has introduced the history department to NoodleTools, and I love the program for its power and one-stop shopping for research skills. (It does require an annual fee for your school or district. Some teachers also like free programs, such as Evernote or NoteStar, or set up a template in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.)

The brilliance of the notecard structure is just how much it includes—and that it forces students to think.

This spring, for each of fifteen notecards for a project on an American reformer’s successful tactics or strategies, I asked students to fill in the following fields on the program’s template:

1)     Title (Main Idea). Giving each card a heading helps with organization.

2)     Source. Students select a source from a dropdown menu based on their Works Cited list, and the information instantly links to the card.

3)     Direct Quotation. Students copy and paste—or type in, from a book—a sentence or two.

4)     Paraphrase. The direct quotation is paraphrased.

Steps 3 and 4 are what I like to call the “anti-plagiarism cocktail.” In the past, I’ve flipped through copies of sources at the back of a research paper to find the sentences that students had paraphrased. This time, as I was grading, I could instantly check quotations and paraphrases together.

5)     My Ideas. For each card, students wrote a sentence about how the fact showed the reformer’s tactics, methods, strategies, or personality.

By the time students completed the cards, especially the “My Ideas” sections, they had little trouble brainstorming a topic sentence for a 300-word paragraph on their reformer. In contrast, with handwritten cards in the past, students rarely understood they were heading toward an argument.

As with any new project, there were stumbling blocks from my lack of direction:

  • Students copied too much into the direct quotation box, making it difficult to paraphrase effectively.
  • Students sometimes paraphrased so generally as to make the information meaningless. For example, a few said that their reformer attended a lot of schools, instead of noting which schools were important to the person’s education and why.
  • Some of the “My Ideas” comments were too similar from notecard to notecard. Next time I will suggest commenting on that specific fact on that particular notecard.
  • The notecards consumed a lot of class and homework time. To complete them, students had one forty-three-minute period and one seventy-seven-minute period, plus three nights of homework, and some still had to push to finish.
  • Some students were annoyed that they didn’t use all the notecards for their analytical paragraph. This was by design, and I told them beforehand that they should use about half. Next time, however, I will require ten or twelve cards instead of fifteen, as many suggested, and also talk with students more about why they shouldn’t use everything they find.

James M. McPherson’s “iceberg principle,” from the preface to his excellent For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1997), is a good rule of thumb: “Only one-seventh of an iceberg is visible above the water’s surface. Likewise the evidence for soldiers’ motivations and opinions and actions . . . represents only the iceberg tip of the evidence accumulated in my research. For every statement by a soldier quoted herein, at least six more lie below the surface in my notecards.”

At the end of the project, anonymous student feedback tilted toward the cards’ being worthwhile. Although about ten percent said that “the notecards didn’t help very much,” “took a long time,” and “seemed too formal,” about twice that many said, “I liked having the notecards to write the essay” and “Although the notecards seemed hard at first, they made writing the paper a lot easier.”

For me, the depth of students’ thinking means that doing notecards this way in the future will be a no-brainer. Research will still be painstaking work, but the appeal of the electronic means that more of my students may find their own Zen-like three-by-five-inch-card moments, just as I did in third grade the old-fashioned way.

1 comment April 16th, 2014

Now Online: Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms

Do you have students who need extra support and practice in comprehending complex texts, communicating complex ideas, or engaging in authentic conversations about content?

Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms presents a research-based framework for teaching academic language and disciplinary literacy. Authors Jeff Zwiers (Academic Conversations), Susan O’Hara, and Robert Pritchard show you how to design lessons for comprehending complex texts, fortifying complex output, and fostering academic interactions—three key practices that have the most impact on developing skills needed to meet the Common Core and other standards.

With particular attention to academic English learners, the authors identify three components of strategic lesson design as the foundation of language teaching across grade levels and disciplines. They give you practical ways to clarify, model, and guide students in the use of complex language. Four sets of annotated lessons spanning grades 2-11 support each of the key practices.

Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms shows you how to teach students to use complex forms of academic language, synthesize ideas, and communicate them in purposeful ways. You can preview the entire book online now!

Add comment March 24th, 2014

Now Online: Let’s Find Out!

In my own teaching, I have struggled to integrate content area concepts with literacy instruction. I have worried, along with every other teacher I’ve known, about how little time we have to teach all we want children to know. Here it all was, right before me, in Sue’s classroom.
—Ellin Oliver Keene

lets-find-outIn her new book, Let’s Find Out!, Sue Kempton invites readers into her kindergarten classroom where she incorporates music, art, movement, drama, research, and the natural world as she learns alongside her students. You’ll discover how to help children create background knowledge (schema) as they are learning to read and write.

Teachers will gain a solid understanding of why schema is so important and how they can help students develop it. The heart of the book presents stories from Sue’s classroom, illustrating how to use 20 key teaching tools—such as observation, dramatization, talking, and movement—strategically to ensure that kids develop schema for reading, writing, and other subject areas.

45 minutes of accompanying online video give you an in-depth look at Sue’s classroom—how kids support each other, use drama to enhance reading comprehension, learn effective word choice, and more.

Filled with student-teacher dialogue and writing samples, Let’s Find Out! guides primary teachers to enhance their comprehension instruction and give all of their students what they need to become proficient readers. The book will be published next month, and you can preview the entire text online now and then take a tour of Sue’s classroom in this short video


Add comment February 24th, 2014

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