We 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.
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.
How can you bring poetry to students to enrich their lives as readers, writers, and human beings? Poet and staff developer Shirley McPhillips offers a multitude of entry points in her new book, Poem Central.
Using exemplary poems by teachers and students alike, Poem Central illustrates poetic devices and explains how they’re used. You and your students can apprentice yourselves to the readers and writers described in classroom vignettes, stories, and glimpses of poetry work in action. Curated lists of print and online resources help you find poems and further explore each concept.
Treat yourself to this reflective and complete guide to teaching poetry. Students will catch your passion as they come to find, read, talk about, and write poems for themselves. Poem Central will be published later this month, and you can now browse the entire book online.
I have admit I am a bit giddy about this year’s Blogstitute. This is our fourth summer PD event and the lineup of talent and content this year is amazing. I hope you can join us starting June 17 for four weeks of learning with eight of our latest, brightest authors. This year we’ll be sharing two blog posts each week on topics ranging from math, to teaching grammar, to poetry.
The post important part of this blogstitute — well, other than our authors — is your participation. So leave comments, ask questions, start a discussion. Each week we’ll raffle off the latest books from our blogstitute authors — that’s 8 FREE BOOKS!
Here are the authors who will share their knowledge with us:
We continue our series about effective PD initiatives around the country with a visit to the Fitchburg Public Schools in Massachusetts and looking at how school leaders and teachers worked together to elevate the quality and the quantity of professional development in their schools.
A decade ago, when leaders of the Fitchburg Public Schools in Massachusetts realized that few teachers were regularly reading professional resources, they decided to organize a series of online book studies. They hoped the sessions would enable teachers to read and reflect on their own time and encourage them to use the materials strategically to address students’ learning gaps. The district offered to pay for the books and a small honorarium, provided that teachers responded to prompts from facilitators, participated in online discussions, and completed written reflections about how they were using recommended strategies in their classrooms.
The result? Most of the district’s 450 faculty members have completed at least one of the 160 collaborative studies, and collegiality and classroom improvements have soared.
“The level of professional discourse has really been elevated with the book studies,” says Donna Sorila, director of mathematics for the Fitchburg school district. “It’s anecdotal, but it’s palpable. You can actually hear the change in the discourse.”
Technology director Eileen Spinney says teachers now request studies of books they’ve read or heard about, in addition to using the resources identified by facilitators. With about eighty professional books already shared by faculty members, she says, “We’re starting to get that professional culture.”
Over the years, Fitchburg leaders have refined the professional development sessions to include both online learning and face-to-face meetings that typically involve classroom observations. Often the facilitator will also ask participants to try out a lesson or project adapted from the book, videotape the instructional sequences, and then share them with colleagues so they can reflect on the experiences together.
Nicenet.org, a free online service, enables participants to use web-based conferencing and share resources through an interactive platform. Facilitators post prompts and ask group members to respond to the question and to one another’s comments. Each person also turns in a journal or notebook of collected reflections at the end of the session.
“That is their more personal piece,” shared only with the facilitator, Sorila says. “We ask them to think about, ‘What are your strengths? What area do you want to focus on for your practice?’ Not only are they doing things collaboratively with the group, but then we’re trying to push them a little deeper with reflections in the journals.”
In addition to refining the hybrid book study model, Fitchburg’s leaders now limit each group to fifteen members to ensure greater participation and camaraderie. They’ve also begun including administrators in the sessions, which has reinforced the value of incorporating trade books into professional development. Summer book study sessions usually last about a month, whereas sessions during the school year can stretch to six or eight weeks.
The hybrid learning model has continued to give teachers flexibility in when they read and respond but has also led to more accountability and implementation of recommended practices. For example, when reading Math Work Stations: Independent Learning You Can Count On, K–2 (Stenhouse, 2011), math coaches wanted to see how teachers in the district’s four elementary schools were organizing math learning centers and developing students’ conceptual understanding and skills.
“Teachers are a little reluctant when we bring in a video camera, but when they think about having that second set of eyes or being that second set of eyes they become much more reflective,” Sorila says.
Julie Basler, math coach at South Street Elementary School, led a study of Math Work Stations last year for about twenty teachers, including those from special education and Title I departments. The school’s K–2 teachers were already incorporating strategies from Debbie Diller’s book, and Basler and principal Monica Poitras wanted to spread the practices to all classrooms. A key goal was ensuring that teachers were intentionally using math manipulatives as tools for learning, not just toys to make math seem more fun.
“I think one of the better results was greater camaraderie among the people who took this class together,” Basler says. “There was a lot more insight into how other teachers teach. Sometimes when you see what someone else is doing in the classroom it might not be exactly what you need in your own classroom, but you are able to take that idea and adapt it and grow from it.”
Teachers still talk about what they learned during their collaborative study of Math Work Stations, Basler says. “All of the comments were positive, but I remember some from the end of the session where people said, ‘Oh, I wish we had done this from the get-go because I would have set up my classroom completely different.’ They really saw the value of just about every part of the book.”
Greater Respect for Reading About Math
Paula Carr, a third-grade math teacher at Crocker Elementary School, has led about twenty book study sessions for educators throughout the Fitchburg district. She usually asks teachers to create a lesson plan based on some aspect of the book in addition to responding to online prompts and reflecting in journals. She said guiding studies of math books has been so rewarding because traditionally professional reading was thought to be the responsibility of literacy teachers. One of the most valuable book studies she conducted featured Number Sense Routines: Building Numerical Literacy Every Day in Grades K–3 (Stenhouse, 2011). Author Jessica Shumway shares how teachers can help students develop strong number sense by practicing routines, just as athletes and musicians do. For example, they can learn to make reasonable estimates, see relationships among numbers, and design number systems.
Carr says the book resonated with teachers. “Every single journal entry I have read, every dialogue I have heard, there are lots of aha moments: ‘I never thought of doing it that way. I never thought that younger kids could do that.’ Quite honestly, coming into teaching years ago, I myself didn’t realize how building strong number sense was so unbelievably important in laying a foundation for when students get older. Sometimes we move through so many topics so quickly, thinking kids have it, but this has really helped me focus on how deeply they know it and also focus on techniques that will help them really grasp the concepts.”
Carr says she now incorporates number sense practice into every class, no matter what else students are working on. For example, when considering a subtraction problem of 154 minus 27, Carr will ask students to talk about the “reasonableness” of the answer, which is one of the ways they learn to perform mental math and develop flexibility and fluidity with numbers.
In their online conversations, teachers noted many great strategies from the book, including Count Around the Circle, which asks each student to contribute a number that builds on an identified routine, such as counting by tens. Teachers also mentioned the Organic Number Line routine, which helps second- and third-grade students develop a mental linear model for fractions and decimals. The line is “organic” because students add to it throughout the school year, and it changes based on the experiences in the class.
Crocker teachers said Number Sense Routines helped them appreciate the importance of sharing visualization strategies, particularly with special education students and second language learners who may need to see number representations as well as hear them.
“My teachers taught me the standard algorithm, and I memorized it,” one teacher wrote on Nicenet. “Now I find that my number sense is growing deeper as I teach.”
Another teacher quickly replied, “I too was a standard algorithm kid! Then when my own children needed help with their math homework I was told I was not doing it right, but I only knew one way. As a teacher I find that ten frames really help the students with number sense, and I am amazed when the students can tell me the different ways they solved a math problem.”
For Paula Carr, the collegial book studies show how much teachers need and want to learn from one another. Reading and reflecting with teachers in other schools has been especially valuable, she says, offering glimpses into classrooms they might not otherwise see.
“It opens it up to everyone valuing each other’s opinions and learning from each other instead of re-creating the wheel,” she says. “You can discover people who are already doing fantastic things and get ideas from them.”
I hated literary criticism. I went to graduate school in the heyday of Derrida’s influence over the study of literature, and I could never understand why people thought his theories were more important than the words of Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, and just about every other “real” author.
Enter Tim Gillespie. Tim was someone I knew a little about: He’d written a chapter in a book published by my former employer and was very well respected as a high school teacher. He was working on a book for Stenhouse with Brenda Power, and when Brenda left, I volunteered to work with Tim. Each manuscript that lands on an editor’s desk has its own individual needs. Doing Literary Criticism had just one. It needed to be cut. Cut considerably.
But what to cut?! This was a manuscript written by a master teacher at the end of his days in the classroom. As I read, I discovered that literary criticism made sense and provided important lenses for comprehending difficult literature. From feminist criticism to moral criticism to psychological criticism, Tim made these complicated ideas lucid.
Whether or not you are dealing with the Common Core in your state and district, Doing Literary Criticism is an essential guide for giving your students the tools necessary to tackle complex literature.
Thanks to all of you who participated in this week’s Daily 5 blog tour! We hope that you were able to get a better idea about the second edition of this landmark book and share your excitement with your fellow teachers.
Here are some of the highlights from the tour:
Ruminate and Invigorate with Laura
“Even if you aren’t currently using the Daily Five in your classroom, so many of the strategies can be applied! Joan and Gail pride themselves on keeping up with current brain research, best practices, and connecting with both students and teachers. They’ve built the Daily Five on the foundation of a workshop structure and continue to improve upon it as their learning grows.”
Enjoy and Embrace Learning with Mandy
“You know you’ve read a good book when it sticks with you for a few days and you find yourself thinking about it while doing dishes and the house is all a buzz. The girls are coming and going, asking questions, telling me information and I keep thinking about CHOICE in the Daily 5. My mind kept wandering and thinking about choice because I have always had my literacy block as a reading workshop. I love the hum of the classroom when everyone is reading at the same time. It is Read to Self but everyone is doing it at the same time. As I washed the dishes I wondered, why am I doing it this way? It’s the one component I haven’t been able to try differently even after reading The Daily Five at the beginning of each year. Sometimes our roots hold us firmly in place. However, I’m rethinking this now and will continue to explore my thinking for next year.”
Reading by Example with Matt
“When we give students time to practice the skills we have explicitly taught them, it is only then that we allow them to become readers and writers. Teachers need to stop apologizing for taking a step back and allowing our kids to walk on their own path toward proficiency. Guiding students to become independent, lifelong learners should be the ultimate goal in any classroom. The Daily 5 framework gives structure and purpose when striving for this laudable goal.”
Read, Write, Reflect with Katherine
“Just recently I read the new edition. I had assumed that just a few tweaks would have been made, but there was so much more. I read, folding down pages as I went, highlighting passages, and emailing colleagues my thoughts. Since finishing I have recommended it to many teachers, and shared my copy with friends in my building.”
Katherine is an upper-elementary teacher. Read her take on the book.
Winners of the free signed copy of The Daily 5, Second Edition, will be announced soon!
Students who are lacking number sense tend to struggle in mathematics and the gap in their understanding can widen over time. In her book, Number Sense Routines, Jessica Shumway introduced a series of short warm-ups for the beginning of math class to help students internalize and deepen their facility with numbers.
Now in her new video, Go Figure!, Jessica invites you into three elementary classrooms for a live look at how these routines work. Viewers will see Jessica and three classroom teachers teach six routines:
• Count Around the Circle (2nd grade)
• Quick Images in a Guided Math Group (1st grade)
• Counting on the Number Line (4th grade)
• Ways to Make a Number (2nd grade)
• Visualizing Quantities (1st grade)
• Count Around the Room (4th grade)
Each lesson includes reflections and debriefs that unpack the teaching moves demonstrated in the classroom. In a concluding segment, Jessica answers nine frequently asked questions about number sense routines such as “Where do you get your ideas for routines?” and “What if students have difficulty explaining their mathematical thinking?”
Go Figure will be released later this month, and you can preview three segments (including a full routine lesson) as well as download the Viewing Guide now.
We are packing our bags and heading to IRA in a few days and we hope to see you there! We will be selling our books at a 25% discount at booth #2423. Stop by to pick up a limited edition Stenhouse tote bag and to meet our authors who will be signing books.
12:30 p.m.: Debbie Diller
2:15 p.m.: Julie Ramsay
3 p.m.: Steven Layne
4:30 p.m.: Sue Kempton
12:30 p.m.: Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, The 2 Sisters
10 a.m.: Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli
Noon: Debbie Diller
For a full schedule of Stenhouse signings and author presentations, download this guide.
On this last day of National Poetry Month, we are excited to bring you an in-depth conversation with poet and author Shirley McPhillips, whose latest book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers will be available in early June. In this video Shirley talks about her early experiences with language and music that provided the foundation for her love of poetry. She also discusses the joy sharing poetry can bring, and how poems can help us discover something new about ourselves and about the world.