Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Follow The Annenberg Learner on Facebook Follow Annenberg Learner on Twitter
Mailing List signup
Follow The Annenberg Learner on LinkedIn Follow The Annenberg Learner on Facebook Follow Annenberg Learner on Twitter

Multicultural Literature Helps Middle Schoolers with Search for Identity

TeachMultiLitAs immigration reform is debated in the halls of Congress and in communities across the nation, now is a good time to shine a spotlight on the contributions that immigrants are making to American culture and commerce. Annenberg Learner offers dozens of resources for teaching and learning about immigrant experiences, but in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, I’m going to hone in on some strategies for teaching multicultural literature. The workshop series Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades demonstrates how teachers across the country are using literature to engage students in reading and responding to the work of writers such as Gish Jen, Tina Yun Lee and Lemsey Namioka.

The works that you will see students exploring in Workshop 1, for example, focus on the theme of dual-identity and the challenges of trying to fit into a new culture while honoring family heritage. These themes are a perfect fit for middle grade students who are often struggling to form and express their own identities.

For example, students will relate warmly to Gish Gen’s character Mona Chang from the story “What Means Switch” who was “ad-libbing [her] way through eighth grade.” As teacher Carol O’Donnell points out, “Junior high school students are really travelers between worlds. On one hand, they’re very young children who need a lot of nurturing and support and encouragement. On the other hand, they’re young adults who really need an incredible amount of challenge and independence and pushing.”

O’Donnell uses poetry, short stories and biography to give students insight into the authors’ experiences with being perceived as “other.” The literature also serves as a springboard to discussion of their own experiences with identity issues, bias, and self-discovery. O’Donnell uses structured Peer Facilitation Circles as a strategy to help students make deep explorations of the readings and appreciate these authors’ voices as part of the American story. In the Workshop 1 video, you will see students who take responsibility for their own learning and show genuine respect for their peers’ thoughts and opinions.

The work of many Asian-Pacific American writers is featured throughout the eight Teaching Multicultural Literature workshops. You’ll find content and strategies that fit your students’ interests and needs. When you introduce these writers to your students, some will see mirror images of themselves; some will see worlds they didn’t know existed. How do you use the richness of multicultural literature to engage your students?


Meet Rachel Carson: Pioneer Environmentalist

RachelCarson_123rfAs young children played on summer lawns in the two decades following World War II, trucks mounted with chemical sprayers wound through neighborhood streets. The trucks belched DDT fog that was intended to eliminate the insect pests that disturbed the pleasures of summer in America—mosquitoes, elm beetles, garden pests. Neither the children nor their parents understood that they were inhaling toxins while synthetic chemical companies were making fortunes and biologists were gathering evidence that DDT in the wild animal food chain was wreaking havoc on those populations.

We know this now because Rachel Carson knew it and told the world in her compelling book Silent Spring. If you suspect your students doubt that one individual can have an immense, positive impact on the health of our planet, please introduce them to Rachel Carson. America’s History in the Making, Resource Archive includes a powerful passage from Silent Spring and summarizes the significance of her work. Watch the video for unit 19, “Postwar Tension and Triumph,” (start at 18:33) to learn about Carson’s controversial contribution to the field of environmental science.

Carson’s observations in Silent Spring and in her earlier books are anchored to key biology concepts such as the life cycle, species diversity, and systems. In Journey North, A Food Chain Mystery, learn how biological science revealed the unintended consequences of putting DDT into the environment. A companion journal activity guides student reflection on the reading.

Although Carson died about 18 months after the 1962 publication of  Silent Spring, she did see some of the impact the book had on the public, state and federal governments, and the scientific community. Silent Spring was on best-seller lists for months. Congressional committees were established to determine if pesticide use should be regulated. Communities began to question whether to continue their use of synthetic chemical pesticides.

Unfortunately, Carson did not live to witness the long-term impact of her message. Today, however, we are the beneficiaries and the stewards of her legacy. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were only 487 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states in 1963. DDT build-up in eagles caused them to lay defective eggs with thin shells that cracked before chicks could hatch. In 2006, 9,789 pairs were counted. That’s the impact that one person can make.

Image Copyright: popovaphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

Effective Teachers (post by Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory)

CfA effective teachers blog post

A new study shows that teachers who are familiar with misconceptions about science as well as the science itself have students who are much more successful in learning.
Credit: SAO SED

Originally posted Friday, May 03, 2013 by Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory*

Everybody wants teachers to be knowledgeable, but there is little agreement on what kinds of knowledge are the most important. Should a teacher have a deep knowledge of the subject matter, or is it better if the teacher has an understanding of what students think? Is there some optimal combination of different types of knowledge? Discussions of such issues rarely make use of data but instead are based on indirect methods of gauging teacher knowledge. The answer is important: Beliefs about teacher knowledge shape both the policies regulating how teachers are prepared, certified, hired, and evaluated as well as programs that provide ongoing professional development for practicing teachers.

CfA scientists and science educators Phil Sadler, Gerhard Sonnert, Harold Coyle, Nancy Cook-Smith, and Jaime Miller have published a study that quantifies several aspects of teacher knowledge and their relevance to teacher effectiveness. The team finds that one key factor in improving student performance in science understanding is teacher familiarity with the popular science misconceptions. The students of those teachers who both knew the material and understood the reasons for misconceptions improved in their test scores significantly, more than twice as much as students of teachers who only knew the material. The study, which included a sample of 9556 students and 181 teachers, is an important step in evaluating how to train better teachers.

For additional information on this topic, check out the following links:

Science Daily, “Understanding Student Weaknesses”

Education Week, “Knowing Student Misconceptions Key to Science Teaching, Study Finds”

American Education Research Journal, “The Influence of Teachers’ Knowledge on Student Learning in Middle School Physical Science Classrooms”

Learner Express, “A Student Tries to Explain Why There Are Seashells on Top of Mount Everest and the Formation of the Himalayan Mountains”

A Private Universe

Learner Log, “Are you smarter than a Harvard graduate?”


*reposted with permission from Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory site with additional links added

Monday Motivation: Teaching Kindergartners to be Story-Tellers

Arts_Bringing Artists_warmups In The Arts in Every Classroom, “Bringing Artists to Your Community,” theatre artist Birgitta De Pree involves a kindergarten class in a storytelling activity that engages the imagination while reinforcing story structure skills. She warms the students up with activities that relax them and build trust. Watch the video until 14:00. While Ms. De Pree served as an artist-in-residence in the school, these engaging activities can be adapted by any language arts teacher willing to take on the role.

7 Ways to Celebrate National Family Month

FAMILYblocksNational Family Month runs from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day, May 12 to June 16 this year. Here are some fun and educational activities from Learner.org that you can do together to build those family bonds:

1. For middle and high school children, choose any of the content courses with Web sites and create a scavenger hunt.  Write questions and have the family search for the answers. Time each person and reward the first person to finish with all the correct answers. Good resources for this activity include:

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Mathematics Illuminated

Earth Revealed

Physics for the 21st Century

America’s History in the Making

The Power of Place: Geography for the 21st Century

Voices and Visions

2. Gaze at the Moon and keep a journal. Use the Moon Journal activity from Looking at Learning… Again to track changes in the moon’s appearance. The pages include questions, materials, and instructions for the activities.

3. Follow the migration of monarch butterflies and report your local sightings on the Journey North site.  Kids have their own page where they can watch videos of monarchs hatching and other natural phenomena.

4. Learn and practice French or Spanish with the family by watching French in Action or Destinos.

5. Document your family’s history and then create a family history quilt as an art project.  The library Arts in Every Classroom, program 12, “Borrowing from the Arts to Enhance Learning,” shows a classroom where students create these quilts. Go to about 22 minutes into the video.

6. Play a board game to help kids learn fractions. You can recreate the Fraction Tracks game shown in program 5 of Teaching Math: A Video Library 5-8.

7. Solve the Eric the Sheep puzzle in this interactive from Learning Math: Patterns, Functions, and Algebra.


Share your own inspired ideas by posting them in the comments below.

Laughing and Learning with Limericks

WGBHTeaching Math K-4 LibThere once was a poet named Lear

Whose fondness for nonsense was dear.

His verses were short

And silly, of course.

And that’s why we fete him each year!

As I see it there are at least three good reasons to introduce your students to limericks this month:

1. May 12 was Edward Lear’s birthday and Limerick Day. Children today enjoy Lear’s sly sense of humor and the limerick’s manageable structure as much as the children for whom he wrote his verses in 1846. You can use the illustrated, closed-captioned audio book to introduce your students to the silly fun and rhyming challenges of limericks. Although limericks have a reputation for being bawdy or coarse, you can find many kid-friendly examples by searching limericks for children. Visit the Limerick Factory on Learner.org to give students practice with the form, permission to be goofy, and the urge to write their own poems.

2. Testing season is upon us and it’s likely you and your students could use a little comic relief. Humor is a healthful stress reliever. Sharing a limerick “moment” will take only a few minutes of class time. The resulting giggles (or groans) will be a refreshing break from test-itis. Provide students with a physical break as well by inviting them to stand up and clap their hands to the pronounced rhythm of a limerick.

3. Analyzing patterns in poetry is similar to recognizing patterns in mathematics. Using the Limerick Factory on Learner.org, you might have students devise codes for communicating the rhythmic and rhyming structures of limericks. Students who have not yet picked up on number patterns may benefit from the practice of finding patterns in accessible poems or nursery rhymes.

You can get a lot of brain-building mileage out of a five-line rhyming poem. May I challenge you to finish this one?

There once was a teacher named West

Whose students were scared of the test . . .









Teaching the Magic of The Great Gatsby

The Great GatsbyJazz, silver, gold, champagne, opulence, New York City.  The decadence of the Roaring Twenties is brought to life in my all-time favorite novel to teach, The Great Gatsby. From the moment I enter the world and thoughts of Nick Carraway, I am swept away to another time and place, which for each future generation is becoming increasingly erased from the collective consciousness. Teaching the novel keeps an important voice and piece of American culture alive.

To give context to the novel, it was helpful to have an exposition on the era of the Roaring Twenties. We looked at the changing lives of women and how the emergence of the “new woman” who smoked, drank alcohol, and dated was a major cultural shift in society. It was amusing to see students wrap their minds around how a woman showing her knees could be considered scandalous. It was also helpful to build an understanding of what was considered the “modern world” in Fitzgerald’s time, especially to a generation of students who can’t imagine a world without the internet, let alone a world where electric light and automobiles are the latest thing. American Passages, unit 11, “Modernist Portraits,” provides historical and literary context for this time period and biographical information on F. Scott Fitzgerald.

My teaching of the novel revolved around introducing the concept of The American Dream. Students were asked to give their own definitions of the concept, which usually included words like money, success, happiness, education, love, property. After they established their own definitions, I began to introduce the earliest mention of the concept with Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer and built on the idea with the teachings of Benjamin Franklin. See American Passages, unit 4,“Spirit of Nationalism.”  As we moved through the novel, students were given the opportunity to examine how The American Dream was attained, or not attained, through the lives of the characters. They began to peel away at the imagery and magic of Fitzgerald’s words to see the underbelly of the dream, the “valley of ashes” that lurks throughout the novel. They drew personal connections to current social and political issues and argued if indeed we are all “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Another fun way to build connection to the novel was to have the students modernize a scene from the novel. Jazz became hip-hop, “old sport” became “dude,” and Model-T’s became Mercedes.Fitzgerald

To end the unit, I showed the 1974 version of the movie, giving the students a chance to see how their visualization of the novel matched the vision of writer Francis Ford Coppola and director Jack Clayton.  Students generally liked the movie version, finding some aspects a little over-dramatic or corny at times. Clayton’s affinity for highlighting Fitzgerald’s symbolic use of silver and gold with camera angles to make objects and eyes literally sparkle usually got some chuckles.  I often wished someone would do a remake and bring a modern cinematic eye to the beauty of the novel. Well, I don’t have to wish anymore!  The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick, and Carey Mulligan as Daisy premiered on May 10th.  Check out the trailer for the movie.

I can’t wait to see how the other Gatsby fans react to the new version and if the remake is bringing new life to the teaching of the novel.  Are you building your unit with the remake in mind? What creative ways do you bring the novel to life?


Teacher Appreciation Story: Why doesn’t my teacher like me?

(contributed by Larisa Kirgan)

Eating Caterpillar“a, a, a, a, a, a, a, b, b, b, b,…”

This is not fair! All of my 3rd grade classmates are spending free time talking, playing games, and in general, having fun. I am stuck at the bulletin board writing the alphabet over and over and over. Why is my handwriting such a big deal? Why doesn’t my teacher like me?

Weeks later, the same teacher informs me that I will be co-hosting the 3rd grade talent show. I am not happy about this. It means more work and speaking in front of a gymnasium full of students and families. She pulls me aside and says, “You can do this. You will have to work hard and put your mind to it. But I know you can do it.” Easy for her to say, she isn’t the one who has to stand on stage. I don’t understand why she keeps picking on me!monarch illustration

It took me several grade levels to mature enough and realize that this teacher was not picking on me at all. On the contrary, she saw something in me that I had not yet. She saw my potential to not just get by, but rather to excel.  She taught me that I had to push myself to be better. Things may not come easy in life, but if I worked hard, practiced and put my mind to it, I could surpass my expectations.

My 3rd grade teacher did not care to be my favorite teacher, instead she wanted me to be the best student I could be.  That made her a GREAT teacher.

Teacher Appreciation Story: Everyone needs to start over.

erasing_clip artOne day in a college classroom, my professor did the unthinkable: She returned a writing assignment and told everyone that they had failed. She explained why the papers were missing the mark and asked us to redo the assignment. I admittedly felt shock and disappointment, because I hadn’t completely failed a paper before.  A couple of people left the classroom. Some, I learned, refused to rewrite their papers. One person even dropped out of the class.  Others, including me, saw the challenge and met her expectations. She was absolutely right and she was unapologetic in her frustration. She forced us to confront our weaknesses, and challenged us to write better and to think more critically. For that, I’m grateful.

Guts are required to challenge students in this way, especially if those students had been praised for years for what is, at best, mediocre work. And it takes guts to meet that teacher’s challenge. Over the months of the course, this professor shifted our focus from earning A’s to learning content and critical thinking skills. Her class was exciting, evocative, and challenging. We took risks, we learned to research well, we made mistakes and figured out ways to fix those mistakes.

In my own teaching experiences, I found it difficult to convince students that it is okay to make mistakes and it is okay to receive a critical analysis of their work, whether from me or their peers. Questions and criticism, when done without personal judgment, help us grow and strengthen our abilities. If praise is the only response we are seeking, then we probably aren’t challenging ourselves to work to our full potential. I didn’t truly understand this until I met this amazing college professor, because I had been so focused on grades and positive teacher comments on report cards.

How do you encourage your students to learn from their mistakes and react productively to constructive criticism?

Teacher Appreciation Story: All That is Seen and Unseen

Aster DaisiesBy the time I was nine years old I had changed schools seven times. As an already shy and reserved child, I had a difficult transition each time. However that all changed the day I walked into Mrs. Ito’s fifth-grade classroom.

We were to be Mrs. Ito’s last class. After 33 years of teaching she was retiring at the end of the year. I got a glimpse into how much she was going to be missed on that first day of school when I walked to our class and found scrawled across the chalkboard a message from a fourth grader’s parent that read, “PLEASE STAY JUST ONE MORE YEAR!!!”  I immediately felt special to be part of her last class. I had made it just in time.

I’m guessing she must have been in her sixties at that point, but you’d never know it. Her whole body shook with energy. Even when standing in front of the class, her leg would tap as she spoke to us. Her eyes crinkled up at the corners when she smiled, and she had a rich, hearty laugh that came easily.  She exuded positivity and joy. We just knew she was happy to be there each day.

Mrs. Ito’s positive influence stretched beyond the classroom for me though. Life at home was not always an easy one. My mom was single with four small children, barely making ends meet. She took in laundry and watched children for extra money, but it couldn’t cover much beyond the necessities, and sometimes not even that. One day my mom kept me home from school to help with my younger siblings so she could work. She sent a note with me the next day explaining why I had missed school. I can still remember feeling ashamed as I handed the note to Mrs. Ito. I wanted so desperately to please her and hated giving her a note that revealed that I had missed school when I wasn’t sick. She took the note and after reading it looked up at me with her crinkled-eye smile and said, “You know, if I had ever had a daughter, I would have wanted her to be just like you.”  I walked back to my desk bolstered by her words. If Mrs. Ito thought that highly of me, then it must be true.

As the year went on, Mrs. Ito pushed us. She challenged us. She never accepted less than our best.  But what she gave me is far beyond what can be measured in a test. She believed in me so convincingly that I had no other choice to believe in myself, too.