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‘Common Sense’ for the Common Core

Primary Sources_wkshp2If you are a high school English/language arts or American history teacher, chances are that you are actively involved in developing curriculum guides and teaching strategies for addressing the Common Core State Standards for reading and understanding primary source documents. While the standards don’t specify instructional approaches, the end goal is clear:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.9 Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is considered a key exhibit in our nation’s collection of founding documents and the CCSS authors list it as an exemplar text for 11th and 12th grades. Historians credit the document with launching the movement to seek independence from the British monarchy sooner rather than later. It is a tightly structured and forceful argument that provides educators with a platform for guiding students through the process of critical analysis.

Workshop 2, “Common Sense and the American Revolution: The Power of the Printed Word” of the series Primary Sources: Workshops in American History places the 48-page document in a powerful context that amplifies its significance in events leading to independence.

Did you know that Thomas Paine had been in the colonies only a few weeks before he took pen to parchment? Prior to the publication of Common Sense, the colonists were seeking reconciliation with England, not independence. The first published argument for independence, Common Sense became the 18th century equivalent of an international best seller. Consider how the events leading to independence might have been different if Benjamin Franklin had not persuaded a 39-year-old former tax collector to seek work in the colonies.

Take a look at how teacher Andrew Sullivan adapted what he learned from the workshop to create an activity that engages students with key concepts within Common Sense.  You will also find links to additional primary source documents such as the James County, Virginia, Statement of Independence. These documents encourage thoughtful comparison of Paine’s argument to, and open a window onto colonist’s involvement in, decisions made by the Second Continental Congress.

What instructional strategies are you employing to help your students use and understand primary source documents such as Common Sense?

Using Music to Teach and Remember the Holocaust

'The Children of Willesden Lane' International Holocaust Remembrance Day is January 27th  and is a time for reflection. Sadly, children are often subject to the same worldly violence as adults, especially during times of war. In our more recent history, think of the number of children who perished during armed conflicts in Vietnam, Kosovo, and Syria. Go back a few more decades and recall that, in Nazi-occupied Europe, more than 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered in the ghettos and death camps. Students need to “make meaning” of history’s tragic events if they are to understand the past and what roles they have in securing a more peaceful future.

If your students have already read The Diary of Anne Frank, try The Children of Willesden Lane. The series TeachingThe Children of Willesden Lane’ offers resources to help middle and high school students better comprehend survivor Lisa Jura’s story of loss, resilience, and ultimate triumph. Mona Golabek, Jura’s daughter, wrote The Children of Willesden Lane to honor her mother, who was spared the cruelty of the death camps thanks to the Kindertransport (children’s transport). In all, the operation saved nearly 10,000 children.

Music as Teacher

“Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend.” -words spoken to Lisa Jura by her mother as she boarded the Kindertransport

Music is as much a character in The Children of Willesden Lane as Jura. Therefore, each reading includes a musical selection that highlights the theme of that segment. In Reading 2: Uprooted (Chapters 4-8), high school history teacher Martina Grant asks her students to identify a song that would remind them of home, should they ever have to leave. After students respond, Grant reads the passage from the book where Jura takes the music for Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” with her when she leaves home. At about 2:45 minutes into the video, students listen to that piece and determine how the music revealed Jura’s feelings.

The video also shows how teachers from different disciplines can work together to provide a more meaningful lesson. Grant asked the school’s music teacher Jeff Arzberger to conduct a lesson on basic musical concepts such as rhythm and harmony, and the difference between major and minor keys. Arzberger meets the lesson objectives by asking students to listen to and then compare the musical approaches taken by Beethoven in his “Moonlight” Sonata and by Debussy in “Clair de Lune.” Would you be comfortable teaching music? Who might you call on to help you familiarize your students with music and music history?

Students then discuss whether it is important to understand Jura’s music in order to understand her story. As you watch the video, consider how music impacts Jura’s story. Does it make it more meaningful? Why or why not?

Thank you, suffragists, for my daughter’s right to vote.

Last year, my 18-year old daughter cast her first vote in a U.S. presidential election. I was proud that she fulfilled her civic duty and told her so, adding that it was especially important for women to always exercise this precious right. She nodded, but was a bit startled by my vehemence. Women of her generation, after all, aren’t bound by sexist dress codes (I had to wear skirts to school on snowy days.) or limited to only one or two sports opportunities in school. Indeed, many women of my daughter’s generation believe everything is open to them. When I once asked my daughter if there were any career paths she thought were “off limits” to women, she gave me a quizzical look and shook her head. It’s no wonder, then, that she would not link voting to activism.

DemAm_2_suffragistsI am pleased that women today have greater access to opportunities than they did as recently as 20 years ago. Still, I hope that we don’t forget to honor those women who fought for generations for the advantages we now enjoy. January is a perfect month to pay homage to women like Carrie Chapman Catt, who entered into marriage with a contract that safeguarded her right to campaign for suffrage, and Lucy Burns, who spent more time in prison than any other suffragist.

The House of Representatives Votes for Women’s Suffrage

Help your students understand the significance of January 10, 1918 by first watching “Battle for the Ballot”(at 16:50 in the video) in program 2, “The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible” of Democracy in America. After watching the segment, ask students to use primary sources, like newspapers in the Historical and Cultural Contexts Interactive, to further explore the women’s voting rights movement in the United States. Students will first be directed to enter their names; they can then select Story 3 to begin their investigation. Students will understand the extraordinary efforts of women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Carrie Chapman Catt. The exercise also reveals how challenging it is to modify the Constitution of the United States. Questions you can then discuss in class include:

  • Why were women originally excluded from voting?
  • Why was it so difficult to secure the right to vote for women?
  • Should it be so difficult to amend the Constitution? Why or why not?

Activism in the Gilded Age

While some women took to the streets to protest inequality, others found voice through their prose. Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska were writers from very different worlds during the American Gilded Age of the 1920s. In American Passages, works from Wharton and Yezierska are presented as examples of “realistic” literature: writing that offers a true depiction of American life. The wide gap between the rich and poor in New York is vividly revealed in the program for unit 9, “Social Realism.” Both of these writers explored how women were constrained—by poverty in one setting and social norms in the other.

Explore the following questions with your students:

  • Do you think literature has the power to effect social change?
  • How have ideas about ‘realism” and “accuracy” in fiction changed over time?
  • What contemporary authors could be considered “realistic” writers?

Students may better understand the characters that inhabit stories from Wharton and Yezierska once they’ve explored the Context Activities included in the “Social Realism” unit. One of these activities is Making Amendments: The Woman Suffrage Movement. How might one of Wharton’s characters respond to a suffragette? What might someone from Yezierska’s world think about the voting rights crusade?

Commemoration days abound in our yearly calendar. As a woman with a daughter, however, January 10, 1918, is a date especially worthy of tribute.

Sign Up for our E-mail Monthly Update by January 31, 2013, Win a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 Tablet!

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Find out what’s happening at Learner.org by receiving our monthly update e-newsletter right in your inbox. This e-newsletter is a valuable resource for teachers, full of classroom ideas for all grade levels and subject areas. Released at the very beginning of each month, you can get a jump start on your planning and find instructional ideas and topics that might not have been on your teaching radar. Here is a link to our January 2013 update and a link to the update archives so you can see what you’re missing.

The monthly update informs subscribers of

  • newly added video series and web sites (always streaming free from Learner.org),
  • items newly available on DVD,
  • services added to Learner.org,
  • conferences we’ll be attending,
  • and MOST IMPORTANTLY ideas for using our resources in the classroom.

For being a loyal reader of our monthly update, you will be eligible to win a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 Tablet in our tablet contest beginning in January and running through March 31, 2013. (Please also spread the word about our newsletter to your friends and colleagues so they can sign up to receive the monthly highlights.)

**All eligible contestants must be signed up by January 31, 2013 and remain on the mailing list through the end of March for a chance to win. Current members of this mailing list who are still on the list through March 31, 2013 are automatically entered. We will be giving away tablets to two lucky readers.

Legal info: Contests found on Learner.org are open only to residents of the United States over 18 years of age. The contest is subject to all federal, state, and local regulations. Offer void where restricted or prohibited. The Foundation will not be responsible for payment of taxes on the value of any prize awarded. For full contest rules, visit our legal policy page.

A Renaissance for Little Writers

TeachRead5Over the past decade, as many schools focused on teaching reading in the early grades, writing instruction often was left on the sidelines to make more time for teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary. Today, we’re seeing a shift in that practice. In fact, Education Week’s recent report Rethinking Literacy: Reading in the Common-Core Era suggests that school curricula are experiencing a writing renaissance.

The report attributes the shift to three factors. First, the Common Core State Standards link reading and writing by calling for students to write in response to different types of text. Second, college instructors and employers are complaining that high school graduates are not prepared to take on analytical writing tasks required in college and in the job world. Finally, research is pointing to positive outcomes when writing is infused throughout the literacy curriculum. The Education Week report cites “Writing to Read,” a 2010 meta-analysis of 93 studies of writing interventions. The analysis found that writing has positive effects on reading comprehension.

What isn’t mentioned is how much fun it is to teach the writing process in K-2 classrooms and to see writing and reading skills emerge together. Session 5, Teaching Writing as a Process, of the series Teaching Reading K-2 can help teachers of young children bring the Writing Renaissance to their classrooms and give young students an early jump on developing writing skills.

The session five video introduces participants to the writing process steps from planning through sharing.  Two sets of classroom excerpts illustrate how teachers can connect reading and writing and create a classroom climate that supports the writing process. One kindergarten teacher joins his students cross-legged on the floor to model the use of drawing for story planning. Another teacher gently elicits an oral story from an ELL student. The student then draws his story in surprising detail. His classmates provide writing workshop feedback by sharing what they understand from the drawing. Additional resources include readings and guidelines that you can use for creating a writing center in your classroom.

Why encourage your younger students to write? Young children enjoy creating their own illustrated, goofy stories. Writing in response to reading helps build comprehension skills and content area knowledge. Sharing their published work with classmates and families creates pride and confidence. The collaborative nature of the writing process encourages cooperation and caring. Writing workshops in K-2 classrooms can be nurturing, lively, creative, and even giggly.

How do you encourage your young students to write?

Whoop It Up With Journey North

whoopers_Klaus Nigge

Whooping Cranes – Photo by Klaus Nigge

(Image by Klaus Nigge)

On September 28, six young whooping cranes began the 1,100-mile journey from Wisconsin to Florida. Hatched in captivity without migrating parents to teach them the route to their winter home, the Class of 2012 followed a human-piloted ultralight aircraft to their destination. They memorized the route along the way. Then, in early spring 2013, after the cranes have enjoyed the Florida sun for a few months, lengthening daylight hours will trigger the birds’ migratory instincts, and they will return to Wisconsin sans the ultralight.  Each spring and fall since the first ultralight-led migration in 2001, scientists, environmentalists, and bird enthusiasts watch the migration online and report actual sightings.  It is citizen science at its most determined. The goal? Take whooping cranes off the endangered species list.  It’s a long labor of love. The long-term recovery goal for whooping cranes is to establish a self-sustaining population of a minimum of 1,000 whooping cranes in North America by the year 2035.

Journey North  incorporates the crane migration into its resources for teaching and learning about seasonal change. The interactive materials encourage students to learn science inquiry skills by doing the work of scientists: observe, record, and share findings. Slide shows, videos, and readings provide content on whooping cranes, ecology, environmental threats, and conservation efforts. Weekly updates keep students engaged with news of weather delays, mileage accomplishments, and bird antics.

If you missed the fall migration, Journey North provides plenty of activity to get ready for the spring action. The cranes will start packing their bills for the journey back to Wisconsin in late February/early March. Now is a good time to review the migration materials to see if they match the standards you will be addressing in the spring.  This winter your students can start getting to know the birds and learning about how scientists work with the birds to get them ready for introduction into the wild. Also, doing the whooping crane dance is great exercise. Come on! Whoop it up!